Sideways From Sacramento

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, June 7, 2007


If you saw the film “Sideways,” you might remember this scene: [Clip from movie: Merlot scene with bleep] The escapades of two buddies traveling through Santa Barbara’s wine country won an Oscar, crippled sales of Merlot and sparked a world-wide craze for Pinot Noir.  Now two real-life wine buffs have completed their own sideways adventure… to nearby Napa Valley.  The result is a new winery guide called “A Moveable Thirst.”  Elaine Corn hit the road with the authors to see how they did their “research.”


Today’s road trip isn’t an R-rated buddy movie. For one thing, I’m along. For another, the two guys driving me to Napa Valley on a gorgeous spring morning have written the wine world’s first buddy book.

“I’m Rick Kushman. I’m the television columnist for the Sacramento Bee.”

A TV critic is writing a wine book? Oh. Right. The word CRITIC can go with WINE. But Kushman’s co-author makes the pairing perfect.

“My name is Hank Beal and I’m the wine buyer for Nugget Markets, family owned supermarket in the Sacramento Valley.”

Beal buys more than a million bottles of wine a year for his job. Today, the guys are taking me to one of their favorite wineries, just like they did when they visited every public tasting room in every winery in Napa Valley – all 141 of them.

Hank’s driving. Rick’s fumbling with a map.  Kushman says, “None of the winery maps of Napa Valley are complete or actually accurate. And they have these little mystery red dots on them that are a half a mile away from where the winery actually is.”   Rick’s mighty pen put that complaint in the book. But there wouldn’t have been a book – or the advice that spills from its pages -- if the authors and their wives hadn’t been sampling wine on Beal’s back deck.

 “We do this thing when we’re at Hank’s house often,” Kushman says, “and generally after we’ve been drinking SOME wine, Hank starts pulling out better and better wine -- one of the great things of having your best friend be a wine buyer. And, Hank usually makes us figure out what the wine is, and I am 100 percent always, always wrong. Always. Beal says, “Rick’s more of an instant-gratification guy. He likes the big fruit...”

Kushman and Beal also like going to Napa Valley --  as often as possible. Beal plays the patient tutor. Kushman’s his thirsty student. Together they fermented a plan to get trips to wine country paid for -- with a book deal.  Beal came up with the twist.

“The tasting rooms are the gateway.”

Today’s target tasting room is Silverado Vineyards. It’s all oiled wood and stone with windows open to fresh air and a view of vineyards to the horizon. For the staff behind the tasting bar, it’s all wine, all the time. Kushman loves this place.

“Silverado is actually owned by heirs of the Disney famil,” Kushman says. “It could be in Disneyland, without the fakeness, but it’s just so perfect. It’s a classic old world place."


There’s already a good buzz in here, and it’s 10:30 in the morning.
“Could be a late start for us,” Kushman quips.  “Immediately the glasses came out. I mean, that’s what they do here.” Sounds easy. But before Kushman brought the first glass of wine to his lips, he reveals the biggest lesson to get the most out of a tasting-room experience.

“Don’t be a smarty pants,” Kushman says. “You’re not going to outsmart the people who are behind the bar. They do this for a living, they know their wine. They taste it every day. But more importantly, who cares? You’re here to have fun. They’re here to help you have fun. You’re here to learn about their wines. Just ask questions and let them answer them.”

Kushman says it’s a good idea to arrive at a winery with some questions already in mind.  “Some of the simple ones would be where you can find the wine. You need to know whether you can buy it somewhere else. Other things are what the appellation is, and have them explain it to you.  And the first time, or in my case, the 50th time, you might not get it, but eventually it starts to sink in.”

As to HOW to taste, Beal starts with Silverado Vineyard’s 2005 Chardonnay --  nose first. “You want to get your nose in that glass,” Beal says. “I mean, get it down in there. Don’t be afraid, you’re not going to look funny.”  Hank talks about what he detects. “Vanilla from the oak barrels, and kind of a little bit crème brulee kinds of aromas out of there. Maybe a little bit of green apple, that’s a real  common descriptor in Chardonnay.” Kushman’s impressed.  “And that is really a great Chardonnay.”

A round of samples costs a minimum of ten dollars, but depending on the wine, just one taste could cost much more. “At Opus One, it was one taste for $25,” Kushman says. “But look, in their defense, that’s a $140 bottle of wine, and they’re pouring you a 2-ounce taste, and the math is about right.”

There’s only one way to taste 5, 8, even 10 wines a day and make it home.

 “We always spit it out.”

Kushman had to learn the spitting technique. “You’ll notice I’m wearing a dark shirt today. It’s a dark blue shirt. Whenever you’re drinking wine, wear dark colors, particularly when you’re spitting. I had a little trouble at first.  And I still get a little drop on the chin now and then.”

I ask if it matters, if you’re in a tasting room, and you really don’t have a wine vocabulary. Kushman’s reply: “All you need to know is that you drink wine through the open part of the glass. After that, they’ll take you the rest of the way.”

Rick Kushman and Hank Beal sign copies of "A Moveable Thirst" on Sunday, June 10, 2007 from 12-1 p.m. at the Avid Reader, 1600 Broadway (across from the Tower Theatre) in Sacramento.  916-441-4400