The best bottle of wine I ever drank – the one that tasted so good that it broke my mind, the one that allowed me to realize that this rare and poignant pleasure could transcend tongue and taste buds – was a bottle of 2002 Santa Rita Hills single clone Pinot Noir. I discovered and tasted it in the early summer of 2004, a year that changed wine in California forever. I say that because this is not just a personal story of something that’s meaningful only to me. This is about mortality, and the way we all experience the things we love.
It happened in the Lincourt tasting room on Alamo Pintado Road in Santa Barbara County, but it was under the Foley label. Foley had purchased hundreds of acres in the Santa Rita Hills a few years prior, and had planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He hadn’t yet built the Foley tasting room on Highway 246, though, so the first wines were showcased in his Lincourt tasting room, named for his daughters, in Santa Ynez. The small, newly built tasting room was closing soon. It was 4:45pm, and the man pouring for my friends and me had that end-of-shift focus blended with optimism. We were his last tasks for the day, he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. There was hope.
He tasted us through the line-up of wines, and then he poured us a wine that would never now be served in a tasting room. This was a wine that was made in such a small quantity, with such extra care and cost, that it would only be released to wine clubs today. But there was something special about tasting wine in Santa Barbara at that time in history.
This was before there was a Lompoc Wine Ghetto. This was before there were 30+ tasting rooms in downtown Los Olivos. This was when tasting at Sanford meant driving out a lonely road to a little rustic shack made of sticks and logs. This was 3 months before the movie Sideways was released in theaters.
If you weren’t into wine pre-Sideways, it may sound strange to use this movie as a touchstone in time for California, and possibly the global wine industry. But it was. As the movie found its way to audiences and then won awards through the winter and spring of 2004-05 and beyond, things began to change in Santa Barbara.
Once sleepy tasting rooms were suddenly over-run with guests thirsty to taste the romantic elixir that is Pinot Noir. A Sideways wine trail was mapped. A Sideways wine tour sprang up. “As seen in Sideways” signs could be seen all over the county at locations that had been featured in the movie. Some of these things persist to this day, fifteen years later. You can book a reservation today to stay at the Sideways Inn this weekend.
New wineries opened, and old wineries opened newer, bigger tasting rooms. Sales growth was exponential. The typical winery owner who had been well positioned before Sideways could be seen walking about in shell-shocked bliss, a weary but gleaming smile on their face, like someone who had won the lottery. Because they had.
Then the movement spread beyond Santa Barbara. Sideways launched a sharp increase of Pinot Noir sales from anywhere, while Merlot saw its sales drop over 40% in California and elsewhere. If you haven’t seen Sideways this won’t make sense, so maybe go watch it. I think an argument could be made that the advent of Sideways is second only to the Judgement of Paris in its impact on the wine industry, especially in California (leaving out natural disasters of globalization like phylloxera).
Santa Barbara would have eventually gotten to where it is now, I think. It would have taken many more years and a lot of concerted marketing efforts, but it is a beautiful landscape for wine tourism, excellent terroir for growing grapes, and the closest world-class wine area to the massive populations of Los Angeles and Southern California. So it was in some ways only a matter of time. But Sideways took it there in months.
On the other hand, I don’t think Pinot Noir would be the dominant grape variety that it is now. Sure, it would always be one of the noble, popular grapes. Burgundy would always provide a classic benchmark. But would Pinot Noir have ascended to become second only to Cabernet in sales, and just as much of a household name? I don’t think so.
Before all of that, though, there I was in a quaint little tasting room in quiet little Santa Barbara wine country. It was the last of several tasting rooms I had visited during the day, without having to elbow my way through a throng of tipsy tasters, unaware that I stood at a precipice for both my life personally and wine in general.
The tasting room attendant poured three other wines – a Chardonnay, I’m sure, maybe a more generic Pinot – all of them have been forgotten. Because then he poured the wine that changed my life.
It was a 2002 Foley Pinot Noir, single clone 667 from Block 5C. I later researched Block 5C and found that it was a small parcel, closest to the ocean and highest on the hills of the Foley estate in the Santa Rita Hills. It inspired me to geek out. It made me want to know more about it.
But all of that obsession came later. In the moment I tasted it I was innocent, unschooled and untainted by wine knowledge, expectation, or bias. I tasted purely. Did it taste good to me? That was the preeminent question.
It did. Unquestionably. Undeniably. It tasted like the best wine I had ever put in my mouth and swallowed.
But it cost $50 per bottle. The most I had ever spent on a single bottle of wine up to that point in my life was probably significantly less than $30. Yet for the first time in my life it suddenly seemed completely worth it to spend this much money. I had to have more of that wine. I wanted to relive the experience of tasting it again and again.
“Would you like to revisit anything?” It was the first time I heard those lovely, silly words that make greedily lapping up some extra booze sound like taking a Learjet to a destination resort. In that moment I saw the brilliance of this as a marketing technique. Without revisiting that wine, I may not have bought it. The frugal, rational side of my brain might have won the argument. But that extra taste gave me the opportunity to confirm just how delicious it was.
“I’d like two bottles of that,” I declared. Yes, it was that good. So good that I doubled down on the most I had ever spent on a bottle of wine.
He had to search to make sure there were actually two bottles left to sell to me. It was a very limited release, only available to me in that tasting room in that moment because Sideways hadn’t yet hit theaters.
I don’t know how long I held onto those two bottles, but not very. Months at the most. I even paid corkage to open one at a fancy restaurant with a steak. I went to that restaurant only to have an occasion to open the wine. But I think I could have drunk it with anything.
Was the wine still as good as it was in the tasting room? Even better. I literally groaned with pleasure with each sip I took, no exaggeration.
And then it was gone. Forever.
I will never be able to taste it again.
Even if I could taste it, though, that wine may be gone forever in other ways. I’ve changed. My palate has changed. The wine would surely have changed.
I chased that pleasure though, wanting to revisit it the way all of us cling to the things we love. It’s so hard to let go, and pleasure is so fleeting. I tasted and collected wines obsessively, and tasted and collected some more. I immersed myself in learning about wine, and how that wine was made and wondered if I could replicate that bottle, that experience. In a way, I’m still chasing that thing that was so much sweeter because it was consumable. As Shakespeare put it:
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
People and wine are processes. We are not fixed things. The idea of a self or a bottle of wine is an illusion. Fifteen years later I can look back and see that wine as a discovery that redirected my energies and attentions to the point that I have now started a winery for which the first wine that I’m making is a single clone 667 Pinot Noir from Block 16 in a beautiful organic vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills.
I hope my Pinot Noir is even better than that one I had back in 2004, but I also hope that I’m better. I hope I’ve learned not to take this moment for granted, because another Sideways could be released next month and change it all forever. I hope I’ve learned not to take the things that I love – like wine – for granted either.
And that’s the secret to tasting wine that I’ll leave you with. Forget everything else you’ve heard or been taught about how to properly taste wine and just remember this:
Before taking that first sip whisper a silent reminder to yourself, “I will never be able to drink this wine again.”