By Bob Johnson
Often, the best experiences in wine country are serendipitous.
I just happened to be in northern California in June of 1987 when Ferrari-Carano Vineyard & Winery opened its doors on the outskirts of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. I’d seen a brief listing in the local arts and entertainment paper, the Sonoma County Independent, and decided to check it out.
I got there shortly after the announced opening time, and there were no other cars around. When I walked inside the tasting room, the only people there were two women stationed behind the tasting bar. I didn’t ask, but it’s possible I was their very first customer.
The “winery” wasn’t much to look at. The two-story, Italian-style villa that has become a Sonoma County landmark was still a decade in the future. Ditto for the spectacular gardens that surround the villa.
Inside the “tasting room,” a temporary bar had been set up. That’s about all I can remember about the place because, frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot to remember.
What I do recall vividly is that the wines I tasted that day were outstanding.
A few months later, I was in Reno on a work assignment, and after wrapping up for the day, I decided to play a little poker on a machine at one of the casino bars at the Eldorado. As was the custom, customers could drink for free at the bar as long as they were “feeding a machine.”
“What do you have for white wine?” I asked the bartender.
“We have a nice Chardonnay,” the bartender replied.
“Okay, that sounds good,” I said, crossing my fingers because I wasn’t really expecting much. The “house wines” at most bars and restaurants are inexpensive jug wines that don’t hurt the bottom line much if they’re given away, and can be big profit items if sold for just a few bucks per glass.
The bartender fetched my glass, and the first thing I noticed was that he had not filled it almost to the rim, as is the custom with house wines. It was two-thirds full, if that. I remember thinking something like, “Oh, well, it’s free — you really shouldn’t complain.”
I started to swirl the wine in the glass with my left hand while I saved a pair of jacks on the poker machine with my right. I swirled not for the usual reason — to help the wine open up and release its full aroma spectrum — but just out of pure habit.
Then, also out of pure habit, I stuck my nose deep into the glass. I was surprised. Very surprised. And pleasantly so. The wine smelled… good. Really good.
It also smelled… familiar.
I took a sip. It tasted good. Really good.
It also tasted… familiar.
I asked the bartender if I could see the bottle.
“Sure,” he said, and brought it over.
The label read: “Ferrari-Carano 1985 Alexander Valley Chardonnay.”
It was the very same wine I’d tasted at the winery a few months earlier. In a word, I was stunned. Why would a casino be using a wine that good for its “house white”? How could it afford to do so? I concluded that the poker machines must be set really, really “tight.”
A moment later, I hit a straight flush. I was in the “Twilight Zone,” fully expecting Rod Serling to tap me on the shoulder at any moment.
After a few more sips, I mentioned to the bartender that I had been to the Ferrari-Carano winery, and really liked the wine. Then I asked him how Eldorado could afford to pour the Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay as its house white.
“The people who own Eldorado also own the winery,” he answered.
I’ve been a Ferrari-Carano fan ever since, following the construction of the winery, the planting of the gardens, the introduction of new wine lines and, most recently, the opening of the winery’s Seasons of the Vineyard Tasting Bar & Boutique on the historic Healdsburg Plaza, which now is home to a number of tasting bars for local wineries.
This summer and into the fall, Seasons will be hosting a free “Jazz It Up” concert series on selected Saturdays from 4 p.m. (the time many winery tasting rooms close for the day) until 6 p.m. (when visitors typically head for one of Healdsburg’s outstanding restaurants).
The series will kick off on July 20 with the Greg Hester Quartet, playing classic jazz, bebop and Latin tunes, along with some originals. Guests can sip Ferrari-Carano and Lazy Creek Vineyards wines, and sample Scharffen Berger chocolates, while enjoying the music.
It may not be a serendipitous approach to wine country touring, but a visit to the Seasons of the Vineyard Tasting Bar & Boutique on one of the concert days certainly would make for an unforgettable experience.