It All Began With … Bowling?

By Bob Johnson

It’s a story that has been told before, but it’s worth repeating now that Wine Lines is online.

It involves one of the most common questions we receive: “How did you get into wine?”

The story is best told via a game of word association. We’ll list a word or two, and you say the first beverage that comes to mind. Here goes…

1. Gin and…

2. Oreo cookies and…

3. Bowling and…

If you’re like most folks, your answers were…

1. Tonic.

2. Milk.

3. Beer.

Given the answer to word association item No. 3, the answer to the big question of the day may surprise you.

You see, we got into wine through bowling.

Back in the mid-1980s, a group of bowling writers from Southern California was transported to a Bay Area bowling center by a manufacturer of synthetic lanes. Reason: to examine, toss a few balls on, and subsequently write about these high-tech substitutes for the traditional maple-and-pine lanes.

Following the festivities at the bowl, our host treated us to dinner at a Yugoslavian restaurant. We were instructed to order anything we wanted, and to select a few bottles from the wine list.

A couple of the older writers immediately went into a panic, simultaneously realizing there were no wines named Bud, Miller or Coors. So it was left to us (then) younger guys to make the appropriate vino selections.

Not wanting to appear uncouth or uninformed, we stood up the hardcover wine list on the table in an attempt to camouflage our blindly pointing at a selection on a randomly opened page.

Accustomed as we were to “California Chablis” with steak and “Hearty Burgundy” with fish, we were completely unprepared for the culinary scenario that ensued.

Fellow bowling scribe and vino virgin Glen Frederiksen and I each ordered pepper steak, and the wine we “selected” was a bottle of Merlot from a winery named Duckhorn.

Neither the varietal nor the vintner meant anything to us until we took our first sips of wine after our first bites of meat.

We didn’t know why, but we did know that we were consuming perhaps the greatest meal of our lives. And we were smart enough to realize that the wine had something to do with it, although we certainly had no idea that we had stumbled upon perhaps the most revered brand of Merlot being made at the time — Duckhorn’s “Three Palms Vineyard” bottling.

Back at the swank bowling writers’ hotel that night, we perused the atlas and noticed that the Napa Valley was less than an hour away. So instead of heading back south the next day, we trekked northward.

What we found was heaven on Earth: dozens and dozens of wineries, and almost all of them pouring free wine! Good thing Glen’s wife Mary was along to serve as chauffeur, because by 11 a.m., we were feeling no pain.

But that didn’t stop us. After a quick detour at the A&W on Highway 29 for a Papa Burger and a frosty mug (of root beer), we were back at it. By the end of the day — which turned out to be 4:30 p.m., the latest we could find a still-open tasting room — we had hit 14 wineries and sampled 86 different wines.

It’s entirely possible that our wine adventure that day in the mid-1980s is responsible for the tasting fees now commonly charged at tasting rooms up, down and across the Napa Valley.

(You’re welcome.)

In the years since that wild bowling-and-wine weekend, we’ve learned quite a few things. Among them:

1. All things in moderation.

2. Spitting is a good thing when one is out wine tasting.

3. Nothing, but nothing, beats an Oreo cookie dipped in milk.

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