Howdy Wanderers, Alyse here reporting for tasting duty:
Have you ever sat through a timeshare sales pitch? Have you ever sat through a timeshare sales pitch like Dorothy in her ruby slippers thinking, “It’s worth the reward, it’s worth the reward, it’s worth the reward?” On our recent wine tasting trip to Sonoma County, California that’s just how we felt. It turned out there would be a whole series of experiences that reminded us of Neal’s newest mantra, “Don’t judge a wine by its label.”
We were lucky enough to score a terrific one bedroom condo at a timeshare resort in Windsor through Airbnb for this trip. It was perfect, lots of room to spread out, great location and plenty of amenities. The tradeoff for this great score was about 90 minutes of our time in a timeshare “information session.” One of us had a positive attitude about it, it was a free breakfast, a couple of freebees and it was too early to start our day of tastings anyway. The other was not quite as enthusiastic. He went anyway.
The session began with a mediocre breakfast followed by a presentation that did not have its accompanying video because of technical difficulties. Instead our presenter wrote notes on a white board as she spoke. Not a great start. Following her less than convincing presentation, we were asked to remain seated in a room with two other couples until a sales representative joined us (I imagined they would lock the doors from the outside until she arrived). When she arrived, she apologized because they were very short staffed on that day. She then asked us if we were at all interested in the timeshare concept. When I told her we were not, she thanked us and handed us the rewards we had come for…and that was that. Seriously, that is how it happened. No pressure, no full court press, just thank you and goodbye. Preconceived notion #1 – Check.
Our freebees were two wine and food pairing certificates to two different wineries. One was to a small tasting room in Healdsburg and the other was for the big daddy of Sonoma wineries, Kendall Jackson. Preconceived notion #2 – we weren’t going to enjoy anything about our visit to Kendall-Jackson. We love small, family owned and operated wineries where you can chat with the owner or the winemaker on any given visit and we weren’t really excited about what we considered supermarket wine.
So here’s how it went…We arrived at Kendall Jackson much earlier than we planned because our visit to the coast was short. It was windy and cold (although the wonderful crab sandwich and clam chowder did a lot to warm both our bodies and our souls). Our reservation was for 3:30 and we arrived at 1:30 hoping they could accommodate us, and accommodate us they did! The KJ tasting room is an incredibly beautiful space, opulent enough to live up to its reputation but understated enough to be inviting to all. While we waited for our host to set our table, we enjoyed the first of many tastings at the tasting counter. We were then escorted to our table by Roberto, who would serve as our host for the experience. The table for two was set in a windowed alcove in the tasting room. The table was set with seven glasses at each place setting, perfectly placed in a predetermined pattern.
Roberto poured our first two wines, two whites. The chef, Matthew, then appears from what seemed out of nowhere and placed a long plate in front of each of us. He described the absolutely gorgeous food on the plate and explained how the pairings would work. There would be a wine for each food and the glass was placed to correspond with the food on the plate. We started with a roasted beet salad paired with a 2014 Grand Reserve rose and tempura battered acorn squash with trout caviar paired with a 2014 chardonnay. The second course was three pairings: roasted sunchoke soup with dried cherries and sunchoke chips served with pinot noir; a pork belly slider with syrah and roasted flat iron steak with fingerling potatoes paired with cabernet sauvignon. We ended the experience with two dessert wines, a late harvest riesling and an orange muscat paired with a butterscotch panna cotta and homemade caramel corn.
Throughout the meal (and believe me, it was enough to be considered a meal, not a tasting), our host and the chef were both involved in every step of the experience. During a break between courses two and three, Roberto approached the table with two black glasses. He suggested that we try a blind taste test. I am quick to recognize that I have a largely unsophisticated palate, particularly when it comes to wine. I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of this. We were each given a glass with no clues about its content. It turns out the Roberto is a Level 1 Sommelier and he provided us with an amazing learning experience. We each tasted our wine, neither of us was able to identify what we were tasting although we could recognize that they were both red wines. We were guided through this experience in a way that left us both feeling really great about it. Once the wines were poured into a clear glass, it was easy to recognize one as Pinot Noir, but the other was not at easy. Turned out it was Merlot. Thanks to Roberto and his knowledge we are both better tasters from the experience.
As we prepared to leave, I reflected back on our preconceived notion about Kendall Jackson. We expected to be rushed through, given mediocre wine and average food. Instead, we had an amazing experience with both wonderful wine and extraordinary food. Our hosts were attentive and seemed genuinely dedicated to assuring we had a wonderful experience. This really was a “don’t judge a wine by its label” experience, one I would recommend to anyone who wants to experience wine at its source at a whole new level.