To taste or not to taste: Winery visit during a pandemic

A pleasant cheat day at Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley

To taste or not to taste: Winery visit during a pandemic

I always thought I’d be a wine snob, or any snob, really. In college, I fantasized about a “Devil Wears Prada” sort of life. In the book—and somewhat the movie—Lauren Weisberger paints a thinly-veiled fiction about working at Condé Nast, hobnobbing with famous fashion designers, attending soirees while sipping fancy cocktails and drinking Champagne out of crystal flutes.

Instead, I sort of turned out to be a basic bumpkin. Several years ago, a boyfriend took me to Sterling Vineyards for my birthday. During our tour, a sommelier asked if I liked wine with oak in it. I replied without a hint of irony, “I like wine with booze in it.”

Today is much the same: I know nothing of vintage and less about flavor or how grapes are grown. Asked what kind of wine I like, I usually say sweet and with bubbles. And in that way, I’ve gravitated toward wineries like Chandon, Gloria Ferrer and Mumm. I also like pretty landscapes and spectacles, so Castello di Amorosa made the list when planning my latest wine outing.

Of course, another ex—and total snob—didn’t hesitate to point out the taste-level of my choice: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long for the carnival rides and character pictures!”

Hard to avoid that one: As in its namesake, Castello di Amorosa is a 13th century-styled castle. I’d been once before, but as we drove up last Sunday, I couldn’t help but wish they had a “Medieval Times” auditorium, where we ate with our hands and watched a renaissance faire-style tournament. The grounds are really pretty, complete with a cobblestone courtyard, and numerous painted interiors with vaulted ceilings that remind me of chapels, although the winery isn’t licensed for weddings.

I chose to visit during a mercurial time in the local wine industry. The state nixed indoor tastings this month, meaning those of us going out in a pandemic must do so in sweltering heat. This fact hadn’t much occurred to me in my extended quarantine in Sunset, where as I write this today, it’s a balmy 58 degrees. In Calistoga, however, it was in the 90s when we visited Sunday. I glared at my friend several times when he loitered in the sunlight— getting sunburned in a sequined sleeveless was not on my day’s itinerary.

I also felt very nervous about meeting our exact tasting time: 2:56 p.m., which the winery confirmed with me several times in email and text. I worried if we arrived at 2:58 or 3 p.m., would we miss our tasting? A winery executive who later gave us a tour told me the vineyard staggered appointments every six minutes so people didn’t show up in groups during normal half-hour blocks. And we did see other safety measures— trace testing at the drawbridge entrance, plexiglass at the cash registers, employees in masks, and as promised: no indoor tasting, although rooms were open inside with people intermittently stepping in and out.

We saw patios filled with people, but still mostly at an expected social distance. On a day that would normally see more than a thousand visitors, the vineyard welcomed somewhere around 200, said Jim Sullivan, the winery’s vice president of marketing. He sat with me and two friends while a server in a loosely-fitted mask of an Italian flag brought us wine after wine.

Patios at Castello di Amorosa accommodate wine tasting with social distancing. (Courtesy photo)

Patios at Castello di Amorosa accommodate wine tasting with social distancing. (Courtesy photo)

Sullivan told me the circumstances weren’t ideal, but that the new rules offered attendees a more intimate experience. The winery is obviously weathering the situation as best it can, as many businesses are. But Castello di Amorosa is a bit uniquely well-positioned because its clientele mail orders wines instead of going to the store, Sullivan said.

Admittedly, I’ve been covering bars and their owners for several months of the pandemic now, and no one has directly said to me, “Oh yeah, Saul, we’re about to give up,” even though one did close just a couple weeks after an interview. I’m sure these businesses don’t want customers to give up on them, so they put on a brave face. Still, I agree with Sullivan that things looked as good as they could have for Castello di Amorosa that Sunday.

I asked everyone how safe they felt in this setting.

“I feel safe. We’re outside, and we’re far away from other tables,” my friend said.

Everyone more or less agreed. I didn’t and still don’t. On the trip up, I shared a mask-less car ride with people I’ve deemed trustworthy, and we didn’t pull out rulers when someone was less than six feet apart. I feel this reality was true for a lot of people at the winery Sunday, but conversations about it don’t happen enough because every dialogue leads to a dark place: Staying home means businesses shutter. Going out means risking your health and others, and shame, shame, shame from friends and family.

The topic sort of hung in the air after I brought it up, except one note I agreed with my friend, who said the day felt “like cheating.” And he was right: the new normal felt almost actually normal, as if mask-wearing and social distancing was something we’d all been living with for much longer.

Oh, right, the wine.

Our server brought me suitably sweet and bubbly vintages, although my favorite was actually more muted from the selection: A Dolcino Gewürztraminer with lychee and rose petal aromas. Hard to discuss this winery, too, without mentioning its renowned La Fantasia, an incredibly sweet sparkling wine that’s more to me like a juice that gets you buzzed, with strawberry, pomegranate and wild berries as some of its highlights.

La Fantasia is a sweet sparkling wine with plentiful fruit highlights. (Courtesy photo)

La Fantasia is a sweet sparkling wine with plentiful fruit highlights. (Courtesy photo)

A friend in The City keeps a lot of Castello di Amorosa wines handy, and the whites generally have a distinctive grape to me. With that in my head, my favorite beverage Sunday actually had no alcohol at all. It’s a white grape juice made from the winery’s Muscat Canelli grapes. I won’t be stockpiling it at $14 a bottle, but in a moment I’m not drinking a lot, I’ll keep a couple around to remind me of a pleasant day in a difficult moment.

Calistoga Inn serves a refreshing French 75. (Courtesy photo)

Calistoga Inn serves a refreshing French 75. (Courtesy photo)

The vineyard cited safety concerns for not serving its typical cheese plates, so we left Castello di Amorosa really hungry. On our way back home, we stopped at Calistoga Inn for some food outdoors and ambiance. A guitarist played with a mask nearby while we laughed about the day, and my friend ordered a French 75. This column typically being about cocktails, I thought I’d cap it with a recipe for one of my favorite drinks, made with a fruity Chambord twist and served in a Champagne flute:

French 75

1 ounce Tito’s vodka (or gin, which is my preference)

3 ounces sparkling wine of choice

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/2 ounce Chambord

Add all ingredients except sparkling over ice into a shaker. Shake and strain into a champagne flute. Top the glass with sparkling wine, and add a twist of lemon rind.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other week in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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