San Francisco Grape & Grain, Part 2: Or, Thinking Drinking Through Time & Space

Vintage Barrel Man

City, Mountains, Ocean and a lot of Road: I recently returned from three weeks in California. This series is an account of my time in the Golden State. Oh, and we were on honeymoon. So there was a lot of free stuff too.

A SURPRISING OBSERVATION: beer geeks are snobbier than wine connoisseurs. Compare, for instance, my experience in the beer shop Healthy Spirits in the Castro district of San Francisco, and my experience at the Larson Family Winery, in Sonoma (which sits beside the more famous Napa Valley in the Bay Area). In the former I asked the extremely knowledgeable and, it has to be said, very friendly, man behind the counter for advice in buying a wheat beer. He took me through some of their stock, pausing over the Hell or High Watermelon beer from 21st Amendment brewery – which I had drunk and enjoyed the previous night at Starbelly – to tell me to avoid it because “it’s shit out of a can.” Several days later at the Larson Family Winery the manager of the tasting room, Marvin, was expounding the delights of trying everything and judging nobody. “There’s wine educators and there’s wine snobs,” he told me. “Wine snobs want you to think how they do, educators will admit that there’s so much stuff out there that you’re always still learning. Every wine you drink, every bit of wine lore you gather, it’s another brick in the wall of knowledge.” This may sound like a line that Marvin repeats to all who visit his tasting room, but it reflects an accepting attitude that I have found to be common amongst wine lovers, but less so amongst beer fans.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Marvin does his customary duck impression before pouring the wine.

Slosh slosh.

Slosh slosh…

Sip sip.

Sip sip….. Repeat. It’s easy to get the hang of wine tasting.

We were in Sonoma with Green Dream Tours (highly recommended: you can read my wife’s review of them here). Eli, the owner of the company, was our tour guide for what was the first day of the wine tour season. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing in that customary Pacific Coast way, where it whips the breath out of your mouth and makes you regret wearing only a T-shirt. Stepping off our air conditioned bus at Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma County, outside of San Francisco, it felt about ten degrees hotter then in windy SF. But within 15 minutes of arriving at the winery we had ceased to care about the heat, because we were all pissed. Drinking alcohol in the morning is like all the best bits of being 16 again: you either have no responsibilities or you don’t care about them, and it feels like literally anything could happen, all of the time. Being drunk and partly hungover in the early evening, after a wine tour, whilst wandering around an REI store in search for kit for going backpacking in Yosemite is like all the worst bits of being 16 again: responsibility for sensible decisions is something you’re ill equipped for and EVERYTHING IS SO FAR AWAY. But that was future David’s problem: at 11am I was supping my wine and loving every moment of it.

I think that you'll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don't care about.

I think that you’ll agree, I am ROCKING the socks and shorts look. Have I always been this tragic, or is it something that happened when I got older? Please don’t answer that. On the plus side, after 3 glasses of wine this is exactly the kind of thing that you don’t care about.

The Vexillologists (ok I admit it: I just learnt that word through google) amongst you may recognise one of the flags in the photo above as being Mexican. Papa Robledo came to the US as a teenager in 1968 to pick grapes for the season, and never went back. Thirty years later he bought his own vineyard. Seven years after that, Reynaldo Robledo became the first former Mexican migrant worker to open a winery and start making his own wine commercially. On the walls of the tasting room there are pictures of him meeting with the former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, and Barak Obama. In the tasting room we met one of Reynaldo’s six sons, Lazaro Robledo, who proudly took us through the history of his family and the winery. It’s one of those immigrant success stories that to my mind are so defining of America. It wasn’t grape picking season when we were in Sonoma, so there weren’t workers out amongst the vines; but later on in our trip as we drove through the Californian heartland we passed through acres and acres of fruit farms, with lines and lines of immigrant workers picking fruit. We drove for miles and miles along dusty, flat highways where every other car was a pickup truck and the sun baked the road until it cracked at the edges. The scenery changed only with the crop – from apricot trees to cherry trees, from peaches to plums; and in every field, at every junction were immigrant workers. If they weren’t toiling in the fields then they were sheltering from the sun at the side of the road, under makeshift tarpaulin sunshades, and selling fruit to passing motorists. We stopped at a few of these places, and the people were uniformly grim and downtrodden, dusty from the road and hot from the sun. No typical cheery American welcome here of “how ya doin’?” This experience of passing through the fruit farms later put Reynaldo’s journey much more into perspective for me. The tale of an immigrant coming to American and building success from nothing may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any the less real.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

Not appropriate to use for bobbing for apples. This photograph would be better if it was straight but I was a little unsteady on my feed when I took it.

I'm guessing they're not seedless.

I’m guessing they’re not seedless.

By 1pm we had visited two wineries, lunched and were now stumbling around the pretty little town of Sonoma, presumably so that our tourguides could have some respite from a tourbus full of loud drunkards.

As we wandered, I pondered on both the Robledo family’s journey and Marvin’s words about learning. There’s something that visiting a winery has over visiting brewery: community. Yes it’s true that they were small, family owned wineries that we visited in Sonoma and so it’s inevitable that there would be a sense of community, but there’s also something about the link between the land and the wine. I imagine that very few breweries grow their own grains on site; the best wineries will always have their own vineyards, probably in the same place where they also crush, ferment and ultimately bottle the grapes. There’s community around breweries, but these are the communities created amongst their drinkers, their fans, rather than the people who make the beer. This fact struck home with me when, later on in our trip we visited the newly opened ol’ Republic Brewery in the small, close community of Nevada City. A lady I spoke to in the brewery bar told me how happy everyone was at last to have a brewery of their own in town. “there’s a few microbreweries close by, like 20 miles or something,” she told me, “but they’re not ours. This one is for Nevada City.”

Beer and wine are different drinks, often drunk at different times and in different social settings. We might order a bottle of wine when out for a romantic meal, but it’s less likely that we’d order a bottle of beer. Whilst wine is a more intimate drink, beer is a drink which is social in a different way – it’s easier to imagine it being drunk at a BBQ, or amongst a group of friends at the pub. And I think that the different ways in which we consume these beverages are also reflected in the way that they’re produced, and the history – and geography – behind that production. Clearly I’m generalising here, but having visited both breweries and wineries in such quick succession, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something in the different way that we as a culture consume (in every sense of the word) the two drinks, and that this difference starts even before the first drop of alcohol is fermented.

ANYWAY, WITH ALL these thoughts kicking around my mind in Sonoma, I knew that I had entered the contemplative, thoughtful stage of drunkenness and it was time to push on through. So, we headed on to our final vineyard, where I was looking forward to rounding off my thoughts about immigration, geography, family and community by hearing about another American success story. And who did it turn out that the brewery was owned by? A bloody Brit.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor's name.

Note the humorous play on a famous British actor’s name.

Something witty

It may have been the last glass of the day, but that didn’t make it any the less tastier. Cheers!

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Travels in 2012 (Part 2 of 4): A Plastic Union Jack in Devon

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack**Ok pedants, let's get this out of the way: I know that it's technically only the Union Jack when it's flown on a ship (otherwise it's just the "Union Flag") but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I'm going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse ("actually, did you know..." If you're at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it's probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: "The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom." And Wikipedia's, like, always right. Right?

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack*
*Ok pedants, let’s get this out of the way: I know that it’s technically only the Union Jack when it’s flown on a ship (otherwise it’s just the “Union Flag”) but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I’m going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse (“actually, did you know…” If you’re at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it’s probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: “The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom.” And Wikipedia’s, like, always right. Right?

YES, 2012 was a special year for the Union Jack, its big outing. Sure there had been that Royal Wedding thing back in 2011, but that was really just practice for the Main Event. The Diamond Jubilee. Oh yes and the Olympics, that was happening too. Man there was going to be so much flag waving! And all the the little Union Jacks, all in a line, flapping along as bunting. It made an old Jack smile just to think of it. All over the UK, the Union Jack snapped back and forth in the wind. Well actually, it mostly hung in a damp kind of way, twitching limply in the drizzle. But in its mind, it was flying straight and true.

They grow up so quickly...

They grow up so quickly…

THE BEGINNING of June 2012 was special for those of us living in the UK, because we all got an extra bank holiday in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This was combined with a bank holiday that usually happened at the end of May but had been moved to June to make a Super Mega Weekend of four days. As is traditional for bank holidays, it rained throughout. London was the epicentre of it all, culminating in a Royal Regatta down the Thames with all the Royal Family in attendance. What a treat.

Naturally my partner, Beckie, and I decided to leave London, to escape the Jubilee madness. After consulting transport information, road atlases, the stars and a palm reader, we decided that the most auspicious time to leave this city of 8.2 million people would be the Friday evening before the beginning of the four day weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

The advantage of this plan, I discovered, was that it mitigated the risk of the car breaking down. How? Because when you’re stationary, it doesn’t matter whether your engine works or not. The car didn’t break down, but if it had, we could have pushed it all the way to Devon and we’d still have got there at the same time. We finally arrived SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS LATER.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn’t had time to clean the oven for our arrival. We have never cleaned our oven. In my entire life, I think that I have only ever cleaned an oven once, and then under duress.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn't had time to clean the oven for our arrival. I have never cleaned our oven. This picture of a nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility - such as are found scattered across the south west of England - was actually taken the year before, when we'd last stayed with them. Then it was sunny. During the jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don't clean your oven when I come to stay? Don't expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

This nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility I actually photographed the year before, when we’d last stayed with our friends in Devon. Then it was sunny. During the Jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don’t clean your oven when I come to stay? Don’t expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

IF WE thought that in leaving London, we were leaving the Jubilee celebrations behind, we were wrong. Devon is a place of winding, single track roads, hemmed by ten foot hedges. We’d round a blind corner (which is every corner on every road in Devon) to discover that we’d entered a small village or hamlet – every single one bedecked in bunting and Union Jacks. For those non-Brits reading this, please understand how odd it is for us (or how odd it was before 2012 anyway) to have flags anywhere. We’re not like North America, where everyone has a flagpole in their garden. Once, when I was on business in the US, I mentioned to one of my US colleagues that I”d heard that some people in the US wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent flag burning. He nodded vehemently, and proudly showed me a picture of the flag that he has hanging outside the front of his house. “It just makes me mad when I see flags that are all raggedy,” he told me, “when people just aren’t caring for them. I think, have you no pride?” He was driving at the time, and stared moodily at the road, no doubt picturing all the injustices that flags were suffering around the world, before adding: “If I saw someone right now setting light to a flag by the side of the highway, I’d stop this car, get out and punch them.”

In Britain, we have a different relationship with our flag.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it's raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had it in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it’s raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had one in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

JubilympicsAnyway, thanks to the Jubilympics, Union Jacks are cool again. And there was no escaping them in Devon. Or the rain.

BUT ON our final day, the sun came out, we went to a Jubilee Party and I almost felt patriotic. We were in the tiny village of East Prawle, on the coast. We lunched in the tiny  pub, the Pigs Nose; it was the kind of place with boat hooks, nets and smuggling paraphernalia on the wall, exclusively cider on tap, and where everyone talked like a pirate. It was exactly what I love Devon for. And, yes, everyone was very understanding when the barman announced over the PA that a car with my registration number was parked on the village green and was preventing the village’s Jubilee party from being set up. Very understanding.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I'm not used to green space. That's why I mistook your village green for a car park.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I’m not used to green space. That’s why I mistook your village green for a car park.

We ate some pie, drank some cider, and went for a walk along the coast.

Sailing Coasting

And when we came back, we joined the East Prawle Jubilee party. There was a folk band, there was sun, there were Union Jacks. Yes the ground was a bit wet and yes some idiot had left tire marks all over the village green, but for a few wonderful hours, I was happy to wave a flag, cheer on kids in swing boats and dance with strangers. I’m not sure how much it had to do with Queen and country, but it had everything to do with community.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

I'll be honest, I don't think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.