|view from the Mayacamas mountains towards San Francisco|
Getting used to tipping no matter what the service - though it's usually good - took some getting used to. Buy a beer and tip a dollar, even if you've been waiting five minutes and the glass isn't full. Go to a restaurant and all of a sudden the expensive meal becomes very, very expensive when you add a gratuity - again, regardless of whether the food was good or arrived on time.
After a month or so, it became second nature to me, adding on the 20% without even thinking about it. And now I find myself complaining about not being tipped. I'm working in a tasting room, where I serve five pours of wine, talk extensively about wine and the weather, and look after each set of customers for around 45 minutes. And receive next to no tips. This has always been my problem with tipping culture: in certain situations you are supposed to tip (bars, restaurants, the hairdresser, taxis) and so you do; in others, there is no expectation to tip, and so you don't. Somehow I need to integrate the concept of automatic tipping into tasting room culture.
wine and regulations
Tasting rooms are unlike most found in Europe. They range in style - some are big and ostentatious, others are small and intimate, designed to reflect the ethos of the winery. Especially in the Napa Valley, tour buses and limousines pour into tasting rooms, depositing drunken groups of visitors eager to spend lots of money.
|every winery has a dog|
Regulations are another hangover from Prohibition. A winery cannot serve food unless the customer buys wine with it: a concept I kind of like. Wine, such an integral part of the California economy, cannot be shipped to many other states because those states (Kentucky, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennyslvania) don't want their people drinking too much booze. That's right, Louisiana, home of New Orleans, won't allow wine to be sent directly to people's homes.
The US has one particular rule that makes driving a nightmare: you can both undertake and overtake cars. In theory, this opens up the road and makes passing slower cars easier. In practice, it leads to drivers hogging one lane because they're too scared to change lanes. And this often means four cars all lined up next to one another going the exact same speed. Roundabouts are scarce. Instead, there are stop signs at every junction at which every driver has to halt even if there isn't a car in sight. Outside a major city such as San Francisco, public transport is virtually non-existent. With this dependency on the car and rules which directly clog up traffic, driving in California is slow, often stop-start, even outside rush hour. It's the one negative aspect of living in this warm, sunny, wine-soaked state.
the wine itself...
Napa Valley wine is uniformly expensive and uniformly Cabernet Sauvignon. There are some extremely good wineries in Napa, but I wish there were more variety and more affordable wines available. Land in Napa is so expensive, though, that it's difficult to make wine without having to charge high prices - which is why everyone sticks to Cabernet because that's what customers will pay money for.
The price of wine is not only a Napa problem. California wine is either dirt cheap or expensive. Far too few wines offer truly good value for money. Here in California, that doesn't matter too much as people are willing and able to pay, but if California is to compete on the global stage with Chile, Argentina, South Africa, or Australia it has to produce more competitively priced wines.
Outside Napa, there's wonderful variety. Name a grape and someone somewhere makes a varietal wine out of it. Sonoma produces everything from Pinot to Zinfandel, with obscure French and Italian varieties in between. Paso Robles has exceptional Rhône blends. Santa Barbara and around is known for Pinot and Chardonnay, but has perhaps the greatest potential in California for Syrah. And then there are the hippies in the Sierra foothills, sometimes - whether deliberately or accidentally - producing great wine at decent prices.
I'd argue that California is still behind the rest of the States in its craft distilleries - although in Germain-Robin they have the original and best, producing brandies from cool, wild Mendocino as good as the greatest Cognacs. I am surrounded by great breweries, all producing very drinkable, hoppy IPAs as well as their own distinctive creations: Bear Republic in Healdsburg, Lagunitass in Petaluma, Sierra Nevada in Chico, and, best of all, Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, as well as a host of up-and-coming microbreweries. It's a good time for a beer drinker to be in California.
boo to the metric system
I've become so accustomed to fiercely dry, hoppy IPAs that on a brief trip back to the UK the malty bitters I'd been drinking all my life were quite a shock to the system. Other aspects of American life I've found more difficult to become accustomed to. The US is the only country I've ever visited which defiantly avoids the logical metric system: recipes call for cups and ounces; temperatures are only given in fahrenheit; the twenty-four hour clock is never used; and an American pint is smaller than a British pint, one unit of imperial measurement I am familiar with.
Californians talk about the weather a lot, even though every sunny, warm day is the same as the last. A life of sunshine and no rain - now that's something I've begun to take for granted.