Invariably, when my wine-loving friends visit a vineyard, they come back with the same story: They meet a guy who turns out to be the owner-vintner, who is beguiled by their charm and wine knowledge. They are whisked to a private tasting room and treated to a special reserve.
In truth, I'm not sure my friends are that charming or knowledgeable -- which leads me to believe that anyone with an interest in wine, and a little guidance and guile, should be able to wangle special privileges at a winery. To test the theory, I would get advice from connoisseurs and wine merchants and then take their advice on the road, visiting wineries on a driving trip with my girlfriend from Seattle to Napa, Calif.
What I discovered surprised me. Advance research is important, but not always critical. Luck plays a role. But with perseverance, you can indeed come home with one of those, "So, I met this guy" stories of your own.
Connections . . .
The obvious place to start was with my favorite wine merchant and wine distributor. Each said the key was having a connected insider -- such as himself -- make calls to hook me up. Both volunteered. And I learned my first lesson. Wine people sometimes claim more clout than they have, or are less willing to wield their influence than they profess to be.
The wine merchant, instead of making calls, gave me a list of high-quality wineries to call myself. The distributor made calls but ran into problems. "They want to know, basically, what's in it for them," he said. Since the answer was "Not much," he told me to try some calls myself.
Actually, I had already tried. Some wine folks had instructed me to ingratiate myself by telling a winery which wines and vintages of theirs I have tried, to gush a bit, then express eagerness to buy more wine on a visit. No soap. All I got were schedules for prepared tours.
On the advice of Jerry Pellegrino, co-owner of the Baltimore restaurant Corks, which specializes in wine, I refined my search, excluding giant wineries. "Not that there is anything wrong with the wine, but you'll never see a vintner," he warned. The distributor told us to also stay clear of guided tours. "They give you a tour with 50 people, hand you a glass of zin, pat you on the back and say, 'See ya!'" Seeking entree to the smaller wineries, I sought suggestions from wine trade groups.
While generally cheerful, these bureaus steered me to the huge, impersonal wineries I sought to avoid or suggested what I already knew: to contact the wineries myself.
Everyone said to give a winery at least two days' notice. Unfortunately, that was impossible for us. We had no idea how long we'd spend at any winery or how far down the coast we'd get on a given day.
Oddly enough, the lack of advance notice turned out not to work against us as much as we were told it would.
. . . And Perks
Heading south from Seattle, just north of the Oregon state line, was Syncline Wine Cellars in Bingen, Wash. We called from the car and spoke to Poppie Mantone, who owns and runs the place with her husband, James. She said to drop in.
As I had been instructed, once in the tasting room we set ourselves apart from the stream of visitors who filtered through to glug down a complimentary glass of wine. We asked for small amounts of the wine. We tasted, then spit into the jug provided for the people who want to sample without catching a buzz. And we showed genuine curiosity. We were rewarded with a taste of a wine Syncline was just introducing -- a combination of Voignier and Gewurztraminer that was richly sweet, with an up-front honeysuckle flavor. We liked it well enough to ask to buy several bottles. Mantone had some misgivings -- they didn't even have labels yet. She relented, hand-labeling three bottles with a silver marker pen. We had scored our first perk.
Although preparation seems critical, we found that luck played a greater role than we expected. We had been told not to bother with Domaine Drouhin, a winery in Dundee, Ore., but we called anyway -- on a Sunday no less. We spoke to Tony Williams, who said he wasn't prepared to give a proper tour. We said we preferred an informal visit. Good answer! Williams gave us a private tour of Drouhin, a four-level winery built into a hillside.
We had a thorough tasting of Drouhin wines, but, unfortunately, the wines we tried were $1,500 to $1,800 a case (current chardonnays are available for as little as $300 per case). Williams suggested we head to Archery Summit, another small winery, known for its pinot noirs. Another small winery on an off day? Sounded like an opportunity.
Up the steep drive we wound a short distance around the building to the small tasting room. We walked in, were relieved of $10 each and were hustled through a tasting of four wines. The sommelier's patter sounded prerecorded in its lack of spontaneity. We asked about seeing the grounds but were told there was a larger tour coming shortly. We got the distinct impression we were being politely told to shove off. While we enjoyed the 2000 Premier Cuvee Pinot Noir, the whole experience left a bad taste in our mouth. And we learned a lesson. Smaller doesn't guarantee personal treatment.
As we headed south, we figured we should find out just how supposedly bad those big tours really are. We picked the Benziger Family Winery, which had an ambitious schedule of daily tasting and a tram tour. The grounds were a bit touristy, but the layout felt fairly intimate, with stone walkways, benches and fragrant herbs beside the paths. Surprisingly, the $10 tour itself was less canned than that at little Archery Summit. Our guide showed us the vineyards, the equipment used to process grapes and the artificial cave where the wine is aged in barrels, all the while maintaining a witty back-and-forth with visitors. Although scoring perks was out of the question, it was more fun and informative than we'd expected, and the wine was good enough to justify buying a case.
Our last chance was a small winery about three miles from Napa.
Hendry had been recommended by Mitchell Pressman, owner of Chesapeake Wine Co. in Baltimore. Pressman gave us a specific person to contact -- Susan Ridley -- who sparked at the mention of his name.
When we arrived, we were met by owner George Hendry, who walked us out to the vines. He had us handle grapes still on the vine and talked about knowing when they are ready to harvest. "You chew the seeds," he said. "When they have a nutty taste, and you don't feel compelled to spit them out right away, the grapes are ready."
An hour and a half later, I asked what the difference is between older and younger vines of the same grapes. Hendry smiled and said, "I'll give you some wine from each and you tell me." In the tasting room, he opened a zinfandel, then another. We swirled, tasted, spit, discussed and learned. Then he opened more bottles. And more after that, explaining fine points about the wines we were sampling. It was the most intensive wine education I've had.
Almost two hours later, I am ashamed to say my budget limited me to buying a single case.
Now when I have friends over I can open a bottle of Hendry and say, "So, I met this guy . . ."
Roy Furchgott writes frequently for The Post's Travel section.