DNA X #22 The Birds and The Wine

November 23rd, 2010 by

California is an amalgam of extremes. It is the most populous state, has the highest point (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the contiguous US. Its history often showcases the fledgling trends that later become the norm for the rest of the country. From the Gold Rush frenzy to the aerospace and information technology industries the state has always attracted prospectors. Music, fashion and movie stars mix with wine, surfers and spas.
We decide to head 30 miles north of San Francisco into Sonoma County to rendezvous with the scene where one of America’s movie classics was filmed; Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The tiny hamlet of Bodega Bay sits along the coast as a cluster of small houses nestled in rather barren hills. As we approach the town remembering and experiencing the curvy road, it is a gloomy, drizzly day with little sign of human activity. A few birds squawked wearily as we drove through town. So far there is no sign of the 1963 masterpiece. Surely there must be some tourist tchotchke for sale here to remember the grisly horror played out on the streets. A quick check of the tiny “souvenir” store revealed a plethora of shanghaied shells from the Philippines and palm tree festooned shot glasses and plastic dinnerware (there are no palm trees here). The dreary shop (no electric lights) was manned by a glee-less gal who glowered when asked about the famous movie. Mystified that the town was not “cashing in” on the potential profits from tourists like us, we went to the Sonoma County Visitors Center. The man in charge rattled off the standard info yarn while pulling out a moth-eaten pamphlet from under the desk ($9.50) that highlighted the movie’s production. He revealed the site of the famous schoolhouse, church, gas station and dock etc. – some here, some destroyed, some fictitious (typical Hollywood). The only hope of reliving the horror was using one’s imagination to conjure up the drama and suspense while looking around this decidedly drowsy fishing village.

Hitchcock apparently used a real story to inspire his film where birds mysteriously attacked the town in the night and were gone in the morning. The soundtrack to the movie featured a cacophony of screeching and flapping punctuated by silence (suspense) but no music. The town revealed this same soundtrack today minus the chaos. Apparently this year (2010) a new version of the film debuted titled; Birdemic: Shock and Terror (budget: $10Gs). This homemade, campy remake was well received by mid-night preview audiences who howled with laughter instead of cringing with fear – much to the serious producer’s dismay! Being lauded as the best worst movie of the year, it is on its way to the cult movie awards. I think we have to see that one.


Heading away from the shrouded coast we go inland to Sonoma Valley in search of wine country. No trip to the area is complete without going on a “wine tasting” tour. We hang our hats at the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa. The historic property is centered on a natural hot spring that was used for centuries by Native Americans until a doctor developed it into an inn and spa in 1895. It is “crush” season and the place is packed with wine enthusiasts. Sonoma Valley is adjacent to larger Napa Valley. We had hoped the smaller valley would be laid back so we could avoid the hype and hoi polloi but it appears we are in the thick of it! We have no reservations for dinner, sold out, (whoops) so the bar menu will do. We try to get the room for an extra night (sorry, we’re oversold…). We quickly contact the concierge to find us a driver for a wine tasting tour – who after 20 phone calls finds someone (this is ‘the crush’ you know…). What are we getting into? The recession must not be here. The next day our reformed drinker driver (a nice lady) takes us around to sample what this region is famous for. We request to see the smaller vineyards, mom & pop operations not the factory farms of the big producers. Along with some local history, she shepherds us to some of the over 300 wineries in the county where we taste red, white and rose vintages. I lost count of how many we saw (wineries and glasses).
Our favorites were the smaller ones where the owners poured the wine and gave you a personal insight. The worst were the hired, snobby sommeliers, usually young ladies, trained to impress with looks and technique not knowledge. By the end of the day (a 5 hour tour) we were mind boggled by the endless wine terminology (and the wine). In an attempt to give you a flavor of the realm of adjectives associated with the industry, here goes…a good wine is attractive, has a good body with soft legs, and is toasty in texture with a dry, peppery nose. The entry is spicy and the finish is supple and buttery. A not so good wine is has a confected entry, is hollow, dirty, gamey, stony and volatile. The finish has smoky after tones of cigar box with a puckery backbone and a ponderous bouquet (sounds like the Hunchback of Notre Dame). Oh, did I mention this is big business? Every winery charged from $5-15.00 to “taste” and there were droves of tasters milling around everywhere. Wine clubs were promoted and discounts applied if you bought a few cases. The average price for a glass of wine is $15.00. The fact is that our DNA X research has discovered that California is not the only state that makes good wine – shhh; they don’t want anyone to know. We sampled great wines made in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and many others. There was no charge to taste either. We also recalled that in Europe, where wine has been produced for thousands of years, the norm is to simply ask for a glass of red or white wine and the local product arrives unpretentiously (no adjectives needed) and is always excellent (and affordable). So our Sonoma wine tasting expedition led us through some beautiful scenery in a bucolic valley overrun with marauding “tasters” (including us) while the cash registers chimed happily. Although the sun was shining, the wine fog rolled in around 5pm as the winos returned to their lairs. I plan to “take the waters” at the spa tomorrow before we get thrown out on the street, if I can run the gauntlet through the next batch of sommeliers.