Cabernet Sunsets

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Let me just say that there is something magnificent about the way sunlight spills across the pages of a book up here — crisps the typeface, bakes the paper.

I like reading by firelight, reading lamps, whatever you got. But my new favorite: Sonoma’s winter light, direct from Mother Sun, warming the words, just as it warms these world-class grapes.

Everything feels a little warm in Sonoma. The air is dry for spring, perhaps a little too dry, the clouds wispy, slender as a sonnet.

“His lips drink water but his heart drinks wine,” said E.E Cummings.

Well, my lips drink wine as well. After two days, they taste like JuicyFruit gum.

“The tongue must be untied,” Christopher Hitchens said of the glories of wine.

So here goes…

I’m spending Mardi Gras up here with my own personal Bacchus (Bittner), god of the grape. “Sonoma,” they call it. Rhymes with coma. Which is where I’m going to land if we visit one more of these elegant and rustic tasting rooms.

I don’t really know Sonoma. But I am learning. Up here, the weather arrives in whispers. In the morning, the famed vellum fog slips in from the coast.

I’m learning that you can stop for an uncommonly good sandwich at the Country Store on Dry Creek Road, a creaky old wagon of a place. The bar in the back uses saddles for chairs.

I’m learning that you can take your sandwich down to VML, one of the wineries along the Russian River, sit in candy-red Adirondack chairs and eat your sandwich, gasping over how good it is while sipping a nice Chardonnay. No one much mingles, but the staff is very friendly.

“You’re Mike, right?” the German server asks my buddy Craig.

Well…no. But thanks for trying.

This is Coppola country … Gallo … Roth, a place to mellow the nerve endings.

They’ve started clipping back the vines up here in anticipation of the spring burst. The growers are wondering now whether the heavy December rains filtered down to the roots, though some grapes do better when they are drilling down on their own, desperate for more water. There seem no hard-and-fast rules. Just guidelines.

I don’t even half-understand all the magic. The French oak, the stainless steel tanks, the cross-flow filtration, the advanced polymers they now use to rinse away contaminants from the wildfires.

The region is still reeling from those fires. They tossed a bunch of reds, that tasted like ashtrays, like wet Lucky Strikes. Yet the rolling region is now green with promise. It certainly hasn’t given up. Last fall’s harvest, though a little lighter, is reportedly very good after the disaster the year before.

You can’t help but admire the word skills of the local tasting rooms: “Flavors redolent of huckleberries, peppercorn, dried currants, leather and clove.”

“Graham cracker, creamy marshmallow, Meyer lemons, baking spice,” said another.

The amazing wine cave at Roth winery.

This wine world really should be the next Christopher Guests mockumentary. You can’t help but come up with your own descriptions: “I’m getting traces of sweaty grandpa. Maybe some mule drip. Hints of Basset hound and underpants…”

As you can tell, my only apparent hobby is “recreational complaining,” a breezy, softcore form of complaint, as opposed to the super-angry type of griping that is so rampant in America these days. Recreational complaining is almost an Irish idiom.

So we sip, we laugh, we sip some more. It’s Mardi Gras, after all. Hail Bacchus!

For an hour, Bittner and his lifelong buddy Ridge tell stories of the LA restaurant they worked at when they were just out of high school.

One night back then, Ridge was delivering a tray of drinks. One was a fiery rum drink that spilled on the way to the table. By the time Ridge set it down, the whole tray was on fire. “OK, who had the …OUCH!”

Bittner tells how he’d ask a co-worker if he’d heard a weather forecast. When the co-worker said no, Bittner would hurl a wall of chips from the ice machine. “Sleet and snow, you idiot. Sleet and snow.”

If you ever get up this way, be sure to stop at a place called Willi’s, where the small plates are the best I’ve ever had, and you order two per person and share with your guests. I recommend the beet-goat cheese ravioli. I’m still surprised when something that comes out of a goat tastes this good. So it is with beet-goat cheese ravioli.

The fried calamari is sweet in ways I’ve never had fried calamari, the sliders ridiculously rich with mayo, piled atop them like snow.

Obviously, Willi’s was a hit. Damn Bittner grabs the bill again.

“Taken care of,” the server says.

In general, that’s how you feel up here…taken care of. Our hosts, Carol and Ridge, have taken me and Bittner into their amazing home, surrounded by vineyards, the side yard full of giggling chickens. The sunsets? Red as the wine.

Now I am sitting on their beautiful patio, which is more of a piazza. The home is pure American, sprawling, rustic and remarkable, with the hint of a Tuscan resort. I’ll give it ten stars on Yelp.

And on my book, on this perfect morning, the sunlight spills. It’s as if the serif typeface is curling at the edges, like peppers in a pan.

Were I a writer, which I’m obviously not, I would love that my words were being buttered by the same sun that kisses these world-class grapes.

And how would you like your book, sir?

Medium rare. Thank you.

Check out Carol and Ridge’s uncommonly rich rose, pinot noir and chardonnay at

13 thoughts on “Cabernet Sunsets

  1. I love this post! Full of beautiful descriptions that make me want to return to Sonoma, mixed in with a little “mule drip” for a few laugh out loud moments. And you have inspired me to take up recreational complaining as a hobby. Thanks for a great start to Hump Day (and Lent).

  2. Wow. I don’t know how anyone reads or writes or gets anything done with that light, that sky. Those colors. Hypnotizing. I think I’m still in a trance as I write this. 😵‍💫

  3. Thank you. This makes me want to go North eat, drink, read, and be happy.
    Chris thank you for your prose and insightful words.

  4. Wow Erskine, tough life! That being said, happy you enjoy and share these beautiful experiences. Just a little jealous.

  5. As I’ve written before my younger brother John (72) lives in Sebastopol, Sonoma Co. We frequent the Dry Creek Market and Willie’s in Healdsberg on our frequent visits to the valley’s wineries from our home in Pasadena. California treasures! Now we’re looking forward to many more trips to Sonoma after the isolation of the past couple of years. The Market is owned by the progeny of the Gallo family Gina & Michael who have invested in some of the area’s smaller fine wineries and are dedicated to their preservation. Good news!

  6. Wow! Sounds wonderful. I hope the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce rewarded you with food and drink for making us all want to go there.

  7. Chris,
    Thank you for the amazing mini vicarious vacation. I tasted the wine, ate the yummy ravioli, gazed at the miraculous sunsets – all through your eyes. I did this without leaving the safety of my home. Not only that, but I get to see the wondrous growth of your adorable Catty Cakes – “the future in a basket.” I’d say, you’re more than a writer: you’re an inspiration!✨

  8. “Sideways” anyone?? 😂😘 “Struggling writer and wine enthusiast Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his engaged friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a trip to wine country for a last single-guy bonding experience. While Miles wants to relax and enjoy the wine, ….”

  9. Your wine descriptors reminded me of an old Robin Williams shtick where, with great snobbery and pretense, he tastes wine, ponders it, and proclaims it, “Absurd…yet flaccid.”

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