Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wine country: a photo essay

International Orange.

I first heard that term in a cool Final Jeopardy question many years ago, or should I say, in the answer whose question contestants had to provide. (This was not when I was on the J show, I just remember it.) The category was something like "American Landmarks." I'm going from memory here but the answer was something like, "This popular tourist attraction, the most visited in the world, is painted a color that was created specifically for it and named International Orange."

And the question was: What is the Golden Gate Bridge?

I took the above lousy photo as we approached the G.G.B. from San Francisco. About 40 seconds earlier, we'd rounded a bend and happened upon a perfect postcard view of the bridge. Unfortunately, my camera was buried in a backpack. By the time I had it ready to go, the moment was gone and I ended up with the above snapshot of some guy's car with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I am a lousy photographer. That is why I went to law school.

But even I couldn't mess this one up. The scenic outlook on the southern tip of Marin County provides this excellent view of the bridge. Obligatory San Francisco fog: check.

The outlook also afforded the above view of the Bay full of boats out for a Labor Day ride, plus Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline. I found it quite exciting at the time, but the above photo is pretty boring. I guess you had to be there.

So do I.

We spotted this car as we made our way north into Marin County. In addition to Buffy, I also love the fact that California vanity plate buyers get to use hearts. Are you listening, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White?

This intersection presents a difficult trilemma. You've got three tempting choices: north to Geyserville, south to Napa, and east into downtown Calistoga. I love me some Calistoga. It's a pretty little wine country town with hot springs, mud baths, and laid-back people. I was there six years ago and liked it so much I made a point of returning.

Actually there are two other good options at this intersection: stay at the Craftsman Inn, visible at right, or eat at Buster's BBQ, at left. We did both of these.

Eventually we got into wine country proper, where something called the Napa Valley Wine Train passed by. How great is that? I wanted a photo of it but got the above photo of some other guy's car with the Napa Valley Wine Train barely visible in the background. I told you I was a lousy photographer.

Squint and you can make out the name of the train above its windows.

We stopped here for beer but they didn't have any.

But did they ever have the whole grapevine thing covered.

A closer look at the vines. Are they even vines? They look like little trees but I assume they're vines that have been trained to grow vertically with the white sticks along the "trunks." Wine making is like photography, I got nothing.

Look at those grapes. They're not as big as the grapes most of us buy in the grocery store, and they have seeds, but they do taste good...

...which I proved by trying a couple, sticking it to the big corporate winery by eating some of their profits. The above shot of a misdemeanor in progress is as close as I will ever get to an action photo.

An unfortunate side effect of eating grapes directly from the vine is that I am now a complete grape snob who refuses to eat any grape that was picked over ten seconds earlier.

I always thought "CS" in boldface Helvetica was the nickname of an obnoxious glossy magazine called Chicago Social, but it also turns out to be shorthand for Cabernet Sauvignon. I discovered this after nicking the grapes in the previous photo. I'm glad they didn't turn out to be Merlot grapes because I crave the respect of Paul Giamatti.

Yes, we also visited smaller wineries than the massive house of Mondavi. E.g., we had a nice chat with a mellow California vintner dude and bought some vino at the Camellia Cellars tasting room. We also visited Healdsburg, a beautiful enclave and home to several dozen wineries including La Crema, the favorite label of a buddy of mine. But I didn't take pictures of any of these places. Now I'll have to go back. See how I did that?

Actually, this is a better action shot than the first one. I snapped this picture of a "West Zinfandel Ln" street sign at around 40 miles an hour. Someone alert the Pulitzer committee.

As we made our way back into civilization on Sunday evening of Labor Day weekend, my friend's Toyota Camry started to lose power, dying and restarting a few times in the crawling traffic on the 101 South. This was after she'd owned it for several years with no issues. The problems started shortly after I started driving the car for the first time. I also happen to drive a lemon in Chicago. I am trying not to take this all personally.

Eventually the car died for good in Sausalito about two miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We were in the left lane of a four-lane expressway. There was no shoulder on either side. You know those horrible people whose car is stalled with flashing lights, blocking traffic on a packed highway, being showered with obscenities shouted by passing drivers? We were Those People.

We called AAA and it seemed like a nightmare was starting. After several minutes of explaining our predicament to an operator who was physically in the Midwest and mentally somewhere past Neptune, my patient friend (a University of Chicago graduate) still hadn't convinced the operator that we were in neither Sacramento nor, after an extensive discussion of 101 South, Los Angeles.

Happily, our deus ex machina arrived ten minutes later in the form of Bill, a passing tow truck driver on the way home from work who happened to be a Triple-A driver. He also happened to be the nicest, coolest, most competent, and most awesome person in the history of everything. Within a few minutes we were on our way.

I took this photo of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the passenger seat of Bill's truck as we drove over the bridge.

I never thought I'd start a phone call with the unlikely words "I'm on the Golden Gate Bridge in a tow truck," but I did so moments later. I now realize that before doing so my life was sadly incomplete.

Bill's rescue only looked more fortuitous when we discovered that the AAA operator hadn't done anything productive after all. She'd tried to send a truck but described our location so poorly in the AAA dispatch computer that we'd have remained stranded if someone had tried to follow her garbled directions. (I don't know whether anyone did; Bill canceled the request as soon as we were on our way.) I've never had a problem with AAA in Chicago, but apparently in California, as in baseball, AAA is one level below the pros.

Above photo: Best Guy Ever.

It turned out our guy was not the Bill Wren stenciled on the truck, but a Bill who worked for Bill Wren. He delivered our car to a local San Francisco garage, then went the extra mile (literally) and dropped us off at my friend's place because he lives nearby. I returned the favor by tipping him handsomely and blowing his mind with a quick card trick, then we sent him on his way.

Bill, wherever you are, thank you for preventing what might have become a disastrous end to a relaxing Labor Day weekend. And to all the great people we met in wine country, I hope to see you again soon.

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