Booze tourism? I don't mind that

I may not know that much about wine, but I know a fair bit about drinking it at its source.
I may not know that much about wine, but I know a fair bit about drinking it at its source. Photo: Getty Images

"I don't mind that."

The words are out of my mouth before I've even had time to think about them. They're a natural reaction, a cover or a lack of knowledge, a sign of appreciation.

They're also something of a joke among my wine-loving friends. We all roll up to a winery, grab a tasting glass and line up the drinks. It's a scientific procedure from there: pour, swirl, sniff, taste, assess. We'll all gaze into the distance for a few seconds, trying to look intelligent, before someone delivers the verdict: "I don't mind that."

So we buy a few bottles and walk out. Those wines are then carefully cellared in the car for about 20 minutes, and consumed.

Here's the thing you've probably figured out: I don't know much about wine. I know enough to fake it. I know enough about tannins and fruitiness, about hints of raspberry and touches of toffee, to be able to muddle my way through a tasting.

But, like standing in front of a work of modern art, I don't really know what I'm talking about. I just know if I like it.

And this wine in front of me right now? I like this wine. That's probably because it's very expensive.

I'm in the Napa Valley, California's idyllic wine country. As far as wine tourism goes, it's a hard place to beat.

St Helena, the little town I'm based in, is like Main Street, USA. It's white picket fences, spotless footpaths, little "mom and pop" stores and boutique purveyors of all the good things in life. If someone were to make a film about the American dream, it would be shot right here.

Outside St Helena, spreading in all directions towards a flawless blue sky, are vines. Grapevines. Row upon row of them, green foliage dotted with red fruit, the sign that this is a place where it's not hard to get a drink.

And that's what I'm here to do, because I may not know that much about wine, but I know a fair bit about drinking it at its source.

It's booze tourism, going somewhere purely for the drink. My career began at the tender age of 17, in the Beaujolais region of France. That sounds quite exotic and impressive until you know that I was only there as part of a bus tour.

Beaujolais was a stop for an hour or so, enough time to have the art of wine-tasting explained briefly and the art of wine-drinking explored thoroughly. We guzzled, we pondered, and we bought magnums of the cheapest stuff they had.

Since then, I've travelled and tasted through places such as Margaret River, Rioja in Spain, Mendoza in Argentina, and the Colchagua Valley in Chile. In all those places I've swirled, sipped, and considered before announcing: "I don't mind that."

And here I am in the Napa Valley, applying my special brand of wine fakery once again. They take their wine seriously here, so my plan is to at least appear to do the same.

First thing I realise is that tastings in Napa work a little differently from the way they do back home: they're not free. You're expected to pay for this privilege. That's not such a problem, though, because the wine is good and the pours are generous.

I've sat myself down in front of a flight of tastings at Frog's Leap winery, one of the smaller producers just outside St Helena. Five glasses have been set up on the verandah of an old house overlooking the sun-drenched vineyard. It's perfection.

Five wines to try, and it's time for some careful assessment. The first one is sloshed into the glass, a rich ruby colour, full of winey goodness (see, I'm a total expert).

I swirl it, sip it, aerate it, search for hidden flavours, assess depth and whatever else you're supposed to look for in a wine before swallowing and coming to an incredible conclusion: I don't mind that.

I don't mind the next one, either, or the one after that.

In fact, I don't mind any of the wines I try, and I'm fine with that, because the secret I've discovered about wine-tasting is that it really doesn't matter how much you know. It's all about enthusiasm.

I was never going to become an expert in the Napa Valley, just as I wasn't in the Margaret River or Mendoza. All I was going to do was roam around the countryside drinking a lot.

And, to borrow a phrase, I don't mind that.

What do you think of wine tourism? Do you know what you're doing when it comes to tasting wine? Post your comments below.

Comments