Archive for the ‘Basics’ Category


Nothing like planning a trip to God’s Country to get my heart beating a little faster (in anticipation of all that resveratrol, no doubt.) Problem is, even vets can forget the basics when planning an exciting wine country jaunt. So I decided to write it down, for both of us.

• OFF-AIRPORT RENTAL CARS – If you weren’t able to fly into my favorite airport of all time and are forced to get to Sonoma via SFO (San Francisco International Airport) you can save yourself a bundle of cash by renting your car from one of the off-airport rental agencies. All the rental car agencies are accessed via a multi-stop tram ride from the main terminal. Once you get to the rental car building, if you’re going with one of the “bigs” (Hertz, Avis, etc.) you’re set. But, if you’re willing to add an extra half hour or so, you can save big and take a second shuttle to one of the off-airport rental agencies.

I was actually referred to our off-airport rental agency by an agent at Hertz when I was booking a busy holiday weekend. They recently purchased a company called Advantage that carries Hertz cars (maybe they’re a little older? Ours only had 11,000 miles on it) but at half the price ($173 for aChevy Malibu with free GPS for a busy holiday week versus double that at Hertz.) That brings me to my next must…

• GPS…AND DIRECTIONS – GPS is an absolute necessity on the windy, not always well-marked roads of wine country. Maps are annoying and often useless. Rent or bring your own GPS. And whatever you do, DO NOT depend on the GPS on your cell phone or Waze, or any cell-dependent service that does yeoman service in the big city. Cell service is notoriously spotty in Sonoma and will inevitably leave you hanging at some inopportune time. Once you’ve achieved GPS, you should STILL get directions. GPS is excellent at getting you to the right general area, but more often than not, you need to know that you “cross three cattle guards then take a right at the wagon wheel” to actually get where you’re going.

• ADDRESSES – Another reason to ask for directions and confirmations is that many wineries, especially smaller ones that don’t have formal tasting rooms, often have multiple addresses. One might be the actual vineyard, one the winemaker’s private home and another the space they use for tasting, sometimes a barn, storage facility or space in an office park. Call or e-mail ahead and make sure you’ve got the correct information. I remember years ago scheduling a tasting at Merry Edwards before she opened her tasting room. The Mister and I followed our trusty GPS to the address we’d found online and were quite confused when we found ourselves on a leafy suburban cul-de-sac, no vines in sight. But when we “arrived” we did see Merry Edwards…unloading groceries from her car. We’d gone to her house!  Not only embarrassing, but made us late for a private tasting with their gracious tasting room host, Ron. You don’t want to be late for Ron, trust me.

• TRAVEL TIMES – Just as your “citified” cell phone GPS will do you no good in Sonoma, neither will your big city/suburban notions about travel time. “10 miles away” in Los Angeles is a completely different animal in wine country when you’re talking about twisting one-lane roads, being stuck behind a bike tour or a combine, and the inevitability (even with the GPS and spot on directions) of getting lost. Pre-program your GPS to see what the estimated travel time is from point A to point B and then add at least 50%.

• DRINKING AND DRIVING – Obviously, if you’re visiting tasting rooms there’s going to be at least one person in your vehicle who has been drinking. The legal limit in California is %.08 BAC. You obviously don’t want anyone to get hurt or arrested. There are ways to keep that from happening. The most effective are hiring a car service (any hotel can arrange this for you, or you can look online) or designating a driver. If the person who is driving is going to have a few sips, these are my suggestions —


Lucy at Hartford Family, know “when to say when” Lucy!

– A standard pour at a tasting room is going to be about 1 ounce. A standard glass of wine is about 5 to 8 ounces. Depending on your sex, height and weight, you’re able to metabolize between half a glass to two glasses in an hour. Here’s a blood alcohol calculator that isn’t intended as gospel or binding legal advice, but at least gives you a good idea so you can be conscious of where you stand and then make sure you stay well below your limit.

– Swirling and spitting is completely acceptable (of course ask for a bucket or cup, spitting onto the floor is considered gauche even in laid back Sonoma!)

– Drink LOTS of water. Stash big bottles in the car and sip as you go.

– And my personal favorite, share a tasting. Just because the tasting sheet specifies a price “per person” or “per tasting” doesn’t mean that everyone in your party has to do their own. The Mister and I share tastings all the time and no one ever bats an eyelash. Then, if you find yourself dying to have more, buy a bottle (or a few!) Most places will comp your tasting fee when you make a bottle purchase, and it will give you something to look forward to when you get home, and something to sip on as you plot your next adventure in God’s Country!

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All due respect to the “Life is a Cabernet” apron, the stand up wooden wine holder shaped like an elderly British butler,  the 22nd century gadget that promises to, through the power of air, gravity and space aged polymers, transform your Two-buck-Chuck into Romaneé-Conti with one pour down its magical spout…

Sorry Jeeves, not this year

But, these are not items that hardcore wine lovers actually use. I’m going to break it to you here, because your dear nephew in Portland is too much of a mensch to do it himself.

“Fine.” I hear you huffily saying, “I’ll sign him up for a wine club. I’ll get him a bottle of something.”

You can do that, I won’t stop you, they won’t complain, but, in the inimitable words of Heavy D. “Now that we’ve found love what are we gonna do with it?” They probably have wine they love, a few even. Maybe even in their house, on a rack, in something with a refrigeration element, even stashed under the bathroom sink (okay, that last one is probably just me.) But now they need to open, chill, decant, serve, store and take their inamorata out for a night on the town in style.

9 of the 10. #10 was in the freezer.

9 of the 10. #1 was in the freezer.

I’m here to help. Here are the Top 10 Gifts For Wine Lovers that they’ll actually use. This isn’t a sponsored post, or a PR shout out. These are the 10 things that I, as a frequent and semi-pro imbiber use on a weekly, if not daily basis, and I can vouch for each and every one (photo of my slightly worse for the wear collection above.)



Vacu Vin Rapid Ice Wine Chiller – Perfect for chilling a bottle quickly, also absolutely brilliant for picnics, outdoor concerts, BYOB restaurants or anywhere you might want to keep a white cold (or a red from getting too warm.) Please note, these freezer chilled sleeves are usually too snug for champagne and some larger pinot-style bottles.


Foil cutter – These babies are made to remove the foil wrap that covers the cork from the top of a wine bottle. I’ve seen fancy schmasy ones that go for 30 bucks or more, but my cheap-o $4 deal from Sur La Table has served me well for years. This isn’t an item where it’s necessary to splurge.


Screwpull Table corkscrew – I have to thank my mum for turning me on to these corkscrews at a young age (Sonomaists aren’t born, they’re made ;-)) Neither of us has the “corkscrew gene.” I am in awe of people who have mastered those sommelier jack knife style jobs, and even more so by the kitchen counter commitment of people who invest in massive “rabbit style” lever machines. I prefer to keep it simple and accept my inability to keep from shredding corks with anything but this. It lines up your screw, creates its own leverage, gets corks out in one piece, runs about 20 bucks, and, best of all, it gets the wine into your glass in a timely and un-corky manner. You might not be cool, but you won’t be thirsty either.

Aerating wine funnel – People can debate how much any aerating gadget really helps. I’m an agnostic on the topic myself, I find a few violent swirls once your vino is in the decanter and then some time on the counter is as good as anything else. The reason I like this funnel is it gets your wine into the decanter in one piece (a funnel is a lot easier to aim for than the decanter mouth.) And the removable filter insures no stray bits of cork or globs of sediment make it into the final sip. Another bonus, if you’re having a fruit fly day, just slip the filter over the top of the decanter while it aerates, keeping your wine protein free!


A decanter with a medium bottom – Most wine pros will tell you that you can decant wine in almost anything that allows the wine to oxygenate, so it opens up and gains complexity, and something clear so you can have a peek as you pour (more of a big deal with older wines where you’re on the lookout for sediment.) This is true, so you don’t have to get hung up on the “right” decanter (glasses are another story. More on that next…) The reason I like a decanter with a medium bottom for everyday drinking is that it’s easier to maneuver. Mine is a trusty number from Williams-Sonoma but there are a ton out there in every price range. This is an elegant gift that’s hard to mess up, consider it the “scented candle” of wine gifts.

Montrachet glasses – I know what you’re saying, “But she doesn’t even drink Montrachet. She likes, ya know, regular stuff, like chardonnay.” You’re in luck. Montrachet glasses ARE chardonnay glasses. But, unlike the typical slimmer bowled chardonnay glass, Montrachet glasses are rounder, and truly enhance the nose and the entire expression and experience of the chardonnay grape from wherever it hails (even Montrachet) I like the Riedel Vinum series, but they DO require hand washing, so take that into consideration before gifting or grabbing for yourself. If you aren’t daunted by hand washing, read on…


Wine glass cleaning brush – I like these little foam dealies for a couple reasons. One, they’re very soft  and flexible so they won’t scratch your glasses and two, because it’s far too easy to transmit strong odors into your wine glass and mar your experience using an all-purpose kitchen brush or sponge. Having a dedicated wine glass cleaning brush guarantees you’re not scrubbing out your cabernet glasses with the detritus of last night’s French onion soup.

Decanter drying stand – This is another one like the foil cutter where you don’t have to go on a crazy splurge, but you can if you want to. A drying stand is, in it’s simplest form, a rubber tipped stake with a weighted bottom that seems like it would send your precious decanter crashing to the ground, but it doesn’t. It gets it dry after you’ve washed it, preferably with water and a bit of salt, no detergent (those off-odors again.) That’s all I have to say about that.


Champagne stopper – There’s a few wine items where you can go as cheap or expensive as you like. This is one where you should go top end. I’ve tried some of the cheap-o champagne stoppers before, and they’re okay, but awkward to use and more often than not, that January 1st mimosa ends up a little faded. You really should invest in a heavy duty model with a switch-style valve, one that closes with a nice authoritative, one-push “ka-thunk.” Your bubbly will still sparkle up to a few days later.

Neoprene wine tote – Sometimes you and your wine want to stretch your legs, get out for a bit. You’re all dressed to the nines, ready to hit the town; you’re really going to gear down your pal Wine in that used grocery bag?! For shame! Neoprene wine totes are another no-brainer wine gift, for you or that lucky so-and-so. I like the selection from Built NY. They have them in all sorts of patterns and configurations, one bottle, two, a six pack (for when you’re on  your way to my house.) I even picked up that polka dot number in the top photo a few weeks back at Marshall’s, so who knows, maybe you’ll score a bargain!

So winos…What do you think? Did I miss anything? Is your heart still set on that apron? That’s okay, there’s always next year!

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If you are blessed (or cursed, depending on who you’re talking to) to live in San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland or Seattle, there is a little known, and completely fabulous travel option for Sonoma County. It’s the Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport (STS) in Santa Rosa, right in the heart of Northern Sonoma wine country. Only one airline flies in and out of STS (Alaska Airlines, go figure) and the planes are little wee things. But if you are at all able, do yourself a favor and look into this option. Not only do you fly directly into Santa Rosa (The final approach is stunning, you come in right over vineyard rows, welcome to Sonoma, indeed!) But you avoid all the madness of landing in San Francisco or Oakland, only to delay your arrival in God’s Country by having to schlep for an hour and a half on crowded city freeways (hardly an auspicious start to your wine country visit.)

The teeny airport is like something out of a bygone era (if you’re from LA and familiar with the Burbank Airport, this joint makes it look like O’Hare) but equipped with all the mod cons. All the major car rental agencies have desks with cars on site, there’s taxi and bus service. And, lest you forget you’re in California, a sushi bar. Yes, the onsite restaurant is the Sky Lounge Steakhouse and Sushi Bar.

Charles M. Schultz (if the name is ringing a bell, but you can’t place it) spent his later career in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, and is the creator of the Peanuts cartoons. Snoopy is the airport’s mascot (Red Baron that he is!)

Perhaps the best thing about this airport, and there are so many, it’s hard to pick one, is that Alaska Airlines allows you to CHECK A CASE OF WINE AS LUGGAGE FREE OF CHARGE! Yes, free! Just make sure you purchase proper packaging at one of your winery visits or a local shipping store.

So enjoy your flight, and rest easy in the knowledge that within a half hour of landing, you will be sipping Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, enjoying a farm fresh lunch in quaint Healdsburg (20 mins by car) or perhaps visiting the Schultz Museum to visit the namesake of this fantastical transportation hub and well-kept secret!


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