[By Richard Sheppard] For those of us who live in Sonoma County, California, it’s easy to understand what draws people here. The abundance of natural beauty, world class wines and Mediterranean climate are all attractive lures. Locals and tourists alike enjoy driving the rugged Pacific coastline, hiking in redwood forests and cycling trails amongst distinctive oak-covered hills. But the wine industry creates the biggest draw, and over the years I’ve had the good fortune of exploring it firsthand.
It all started one summer afternoon 22 years ago, when a group of friends gathered in Healdsburg on Glenn Proctor’s porch, each of us having brought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
While snacking on soft cheese and crackers, we took turns sharing our impressions of the wines, one by one. Today, after a few personnel shifts, our gatherings are as informal and unassuming as ever, and I’m happy to say our wine group still meets several times a year for tasting and a potluck meal.
To keep our gatherings dynamic, we rotate the hosts, houses, and wine varietals for each tasting. After a varietal has been determined and a date set, each guest arrives with a bottle and food in hand.
Today’s tasting features local sparkling wine. As each guest arrives, their bottle is added to the kitchen ice chest, with care taken to hide its label. This way, our post-tasting unveiling will be a surprise to as many of us as possible. That’s part of the fun. Meanwhile, Bob and Vince have each opened a bottle of still wine. The rest of us will serve as guinea pigs on which these two winemakers test their latest releases. I post myself in the kitchen to paper bag each bottle of sparkling wine, numbering each with a pen, careful not to peek at labels.
Bob is our cheese guru and he always brings a variety of cheese from different parts of the world for us to taste. Although wine and cheese are a classic duo that has been depicted in art and literature for centuries, the ideal combination is surprisingly hard to come by. After years of tasting wine and cheese together I’ve found that most cheeses mask wine’s fruit, leaving a bitter taste. The traditional rule is red wines pair best with hard, full-flavored cheeses, and whites with soft, milder cheeses, although that’s not completely reliable.
Contemporary advice suggests pairing based on acidity, but unfortunately, product labels don’t reveal that information. I think the simplest and most fun way to figure out what tastes best with what is through trial and error. Then the ideal pairing happens serendipitously, and when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.
After half an hour of nibbling cheeses and catching up socially, my wife Marilyn nudges the group into the dining room. A row of six glasses waits at each setting, equivalent to the number of wines we’ll pour during each of two flights.
As we pass the bagged wines around the table, quiet descends for the first time, music once muffled by conversation now recognizable above clinking glasses. Each taster alternately samples and scribbles notes about body and texture (richness, bubble size), taste (sweetness, bitterness, acidity), flavor, color, aromas, balance (of body, texture, flavors, acidity), quality (enjoying the wine), etc.