Getting into major wine events on the comp list as a writer or restaurant wine buyer used to be a hell of a lot easier than it is in 2012. What I’ve learned is that mentioning this newspaper as the home of my written work on wine garners not only zero calls or emails back, but immediate industry blacklisting, possible reporting to the FBI, and definite denials of admission, even at the Anderson Valley Winegrower Association’s Alsace Festival. Yet bearish, pencil wielding oafs from Tehachapi Today, panty-hosed hags on behalf of San Jose Mercury News, and rosacea-ridden windbags from hardly heard GrapeRadio.com not only get tickets but free accommodation and lunch!
After the president of central California’s World of Pinot Noir, who, as prophesied, didn’t respond to my media request at all, I was about to go full on gate crasher status at this springtime shindig. I did need a miracle on March 2nd, a ticket if ya got one, and ultimately had to devote 95 bucks of my State Tax Return to attend their 12th annual tasting event in Shell Beach. I’m okay with that. With April’s Hospice du Rhône Festival in Paso Robles being the only other contender in the all-time wine events category, WOPN remains the premier wine gathering in the Golden State. Hell, it makes its gutshot, dying imitator “Pinot Days” look like the White Zinfandel Classic. That’s what you get when an alleged “non-profit” run by an unoriginal, infantile duo from Novato — who’s main interests seem to be mass mailing and bullying eligible wine trade people, fostering pseudo wine industry friendships, and procuring interwinery discounts in addition to free wine three times a year — tries and fails to join the major leagues.
In two heat deflective tents on the cliff above the kelp-strewn string of reef breaks I grew up surfing as a youth, 160 wineries paid close to $600 each to show off their Pinots at WOPN at this heavenly halfway point between SF and LA. The organizers split up the grand tastings into two afternoons, with 80 wineries at each and half a thousand tasters each time around, and again, the weather and scenery couldn’t have been more perfect. 77 degrees of sunshine and breeze, the dunes of G.I. Jane fame stretching out toward Point Sal in the backdrop, and most of the world’s finest wines flowing in one hedonistic epicenter. It was like setting foot in a Salvador Dalí painting with a glass full of ambrosia.
There was chaos at the Will Call station, with a thick, agitated line full of clock watchers starting to spew. Apparently one lone laptop was delegated to check hundreds of online ticket buyers in, and by the time 3:35 rolled around we were cooking in the sun and had lost a decent percentage of the time frame in collective thirst. With a bracelet on my wrist and a “World of Pinot Noir” logoed Riedel wine glass in my hand, I hoofed it toward the big tent like a day numbered hog electrically pronged on the buttocks by a drunken Hanford hick, and saw that it was going to take some 90s-era mosh moves to get to the goods. Tempted not to spit because I’d paid the fee, I still grabbed a red plastic cup and slurped and spat through 50 or so wines, featuring some schwag Burgundies, a surprising Brokenwood Pinot Noir from Australia, and then a dominating central California lineup starring the Polish vampire himself Paul Lato, Bonaccorsi, Talley, Sinor-Lavalee, Stephen Ross, and Hilliard Bruce. There was a whole contingent of entry-level New Zealand Pinots that I bypassed, and ample supplies of killer food to keep the sobriety ball rolling. Stepping out of the tent and leaning on the bluff side railing, I watched the tide roll in and cover the shelf I was surfing before the tasting and discovered it was only 5pm and I’d made the rounds of what I wanted to try. As good and rare as the Paul Lato wines were, I wasn’t floored by the diversity of wineries, with Anderson Valley hardly a player in Friday’s field. I left slightly buzzed, and partially perturbed by spending close to a C-note on what was there.
Amid the evening’s haze, I got a call from an old friend of mine named Jeff who was in town from Oregon’s Willamette Valley with a coworker to pour at Saturday’s Grand Tasting for King Estate Winery. We made arrangements to go for a surf the next morning, and he hatched a game plan on sneaking me in to the sold out afternoon tasting for the real deal.
“Who’d you like today, D?” he asked me.
“The Polish vamp, man.”
“The Polish what?”
“Paul Lato. His wines were insane. Bonaccorsi was off the chain too. Sinor-Lavalee…”
“See, I tried all that central California shit with all its RS and high PH. I’m not feeling it.”
They arrived in a rented Ford Explorer the following morning. I hugged Jeff and met his coworker Ben. I loaded my gear in their ride and climbed in back next to a hungover, sunglassed 40-something by the name of Mercer; a barrel salesman from Healdsburg. He had the demeanor of a boa constrictor in mid-digestion. After all, this trio’s organs were still processing the previous evening’s gallons of cocktails and at least four pounds of well seasoned, oak-pit barbecued meat from Jocko’s in Nipomo; a reputable old school steakhouse that often boasts about churning through four cows on a Friday night.
We small talked our way to the Morro Rock, with a pitstop at Wavelengths surfshop to rent Mercer and Ben gear for their first surfing experience. The ocean was barely 52 degrees so wetsuits were mandatory, and I shivered at what these guys were about to experience in their frail rentals. We pulled up beachside and found offshore winds fanning out against fun, perfect four-foot lefts peeling up the long, spacious beach. We suited up, and it wasn’t until locking up the Explorer that Jeff and I noticed Mercer with his suit on backwards, flailing as he forced the long zipper up to his Adam’s apple. Even Ben died in laughter. “Tell me if it’s wrong then!” Mercer was saying as he corrected himself. I quietly asked Jeff about their swimming abilities: “Have these guys ever been in the ocean?”
“Dude, I’ve never even seen them in a swimming pool,” he replied with a laugh, rubbing his hands together in sinister fashion. I gave Mercer and Ben some tideline tips on paddling posture, what to do when a set wave breaks unexpectedly in your face, and how to catch a wave before we all hit the water. Miraculously, our quartet made it all the way outside beneath the majestic old Morro Rock, dodged a surprise six foot set along the way, and the rookies made it back to shore with at least one wave to speak of. Mercer was so fired up at lunch afterward that he swore he could get me into the grand tasting, and that he’d probably never walk the same way again after those two Charlie horse cramps that seized up his right leg nearly had him waving his hand up for help at sea in the heart of an unfriendly pack of Morro Bay locals.
We parted ways in Shell Beach around an hour before the Grand Tasting, and I dressed for the potential Pinot onslaught, polishing my logo stemware from the day before and disguising myself as someone who’d naturally be at such a wine event. Sure enough the texts poured in from Jeff, advising me to walk in around the back by the cliff with my glass and text him when I was behind the North tent. “I’m 20 seconds away,” I typed. “Mercer’s got it,” he wrote back. The perspiring, salt crusted, button-up business shirt-sporting barrel rep appeared with a purpled glass in the dire deprivation of oxygen. A crumpled, blue entry bracelet was in his palm. “It’s out of control in there,” he warned me, handing off the bracelet, the teal of the afternoon sea behind us. “They oversold this thing. I just want to go to the bar and order a drink and be out here.”
I stealthily applied the bracelet, keeping an eye out for the yellow shirted security, and once it was on, we smiled at each other before I declared, “I’m going in.”
“Go get lubed,” he said, patting me on the back.
And once inside? A packed house that didn’t know what those red spit cups were all about. A chorus of drunken yellowjackets if you will, losing focus, sipping whatever and flocking whenever. Arriving one hour into a wine tasting is the new advantage, because the crowd was dropping like flies, and as a result, I was able to walk right up to an empty Sea Smoke table, get winemaking techniques from Sandhi, chat with Jason Drew and get blown away by all four of his wines, try Black Kite, huff on Breggo, sip Roar, feast on Foxen, and drink Failla. Come 6pm there was pure peace on the Pacific, thanks to a little help from my friends.