By Kori ~ May 17th, 2010.
We all have special people in our lives who have influenced us and introduced us to new things. When it comes to fine wine, those special people for me are my Dad’s cousin Marie Morris and her husband Dink. Dink and Marie live in northern California and have been wine lovers for over 40 years. Their younger daughter, Kim, and I have been close since we were kids so I take advantage of any opportunity to visit the Morris family. They were the ones who first took me to visit wineries, introduced me to Riedel wine glasses and the difference good wine glasses can make, and led me through my first blind wine tasting dinner.
Recently, Dink and Marie were kind enough to take time to answer my questions and share their thoughts and experiences with me and our Wine Peeps readers. I hope that you find their story interesting and, especially for those of you who are new to wine, inspiring. Wine can sometimes be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are interested in learning more about wine, don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way. Just visit some wineries, buy new wines to try, attend wine tastings and events, read this blog, and enjoy.
When did you take your first trip to wine country? How old were you and what made you decide to do it?
Our first trip was in the fall of 1968. We were 22 years old at the time. We were back at Cal [University of California at Berkeley] for the fall semester and wanted a getaway. Napa County was close and inexpensive (at the time), and we wanted to try the hot springs at Calistoga. The wine tasting was a secondary activity, which turned out to be more interesting.
What were your first impressions then, and what was your first favorite wine?
Our first impression was that it was an interesting activity. We were not serious about wine, nor did we consume much.
Marie: I had not grown up with wine. Mother liked Gewurztraminer but preferred a martini, and my father preferred bourbon.
Dink: I grew up with wine in the house, but it was often homemade by my grandfather or step-grandfather or jug wine that my father bought.
We found the wineries interesting and welcoming. We particularly remember Louis Martini Winery that had old doors laid across barrels for the tasting bar, and we went to Beringer to see the famous caves. Overall we liked the wines, and it was the start of our interest; although, we did not return for a couple of years. We cannot remember a specific wine from that early adventure. Over time, we started drinking wines when we were out to dinner in a restaurant (because the wine was cheaper than cocktails), but we did not initially have wine at home. Our second visit, when we were becoming more interested in wine, was in the early 70s. We continued to go to the Napa area including the Silverado Trail area and frequently camped and bicycled around the valley. Over time, we expanded our tastings to the Sonoma Valley and the Russian River area. We started having annual Thanksgiving weekend tastings with Jim and Jeri [Marie’s brother and his wife]; we would taste in Napa Valley on Friday and Sonoma Valley on Sunday. When the children were small they would have to endure these wine tasting adventures. We always tried to go to old favorites and add some new wineries as well. We would look for small, often family-owned wineries. We had unforgettable experiences talking with the owners and winemakers. On one such adventure, we tasted at Raymond Winery when it was still being built; they were installing the insulation that day. We sat on the stemmer/crusher and were introduced to the wines by Walter Raymond (or “Old Man Raymond” as he was introduced by his son). Raymond became one of our favorites, as did Cakebread. At that time, you needed an appointment, and we called the owner’s auto shop business in the East Bay to make arrangements. Cakebread is where we remember having our first barrel tasting. It was a Cabernet that we loved; unfortunately, it was released and sold out before we could get any. But our favorite wine from those early days was Louis Martini’s Cabernet Sauvignon. One time we found some in a corner grocery store in San Francisco and bought all they had, for $3 a bottle.
What are the most vivid changes that stick out in your mind in the wine industry since your first trip?
The most vivid change is how much the wine industry has moved to big business. So many of the wineries today are large, fancy structures that focus on the mass market, and the tasting experience is much less personal. The one that stands out as the first new style winery for us was Sterling; it just seemed so out of place. The other change is the tasting fees. In the early days, it seemed that the winemakers wanted you to taste their wines because they were proud of what they produced and hoped that you would like them. Of course, they were pleased when you made purchases. Although we did have one time when we tasted a late harvest Riesling from Raymond that was just like honey; he did not want to sell it to us, he just wanted us to taste it. For us, if we can taste the wines, we will most likely buy something. One consequence of the tasting fees and the lack of connection is that we no longer feel that we should acknowledge the winemaker by buying something. We stopped going to Napa Valley years ago because of the people, traffic, and cost. And we avoid the festivals, etc. It sometimes feels like wine tasting is just a destination event now.
How different is the wine you buy today from the wine that you bought then?
We continue to buy pretty similar wines; our tastes have changed some but not a lot. However, it seems the wines now are made to be [immediately] drinkable. We do not find the wines to age like we did before, particularly ones that are reasonably priced. Different wineries cater to different consumers within the mass market; some focus on large volume and drinkability and others on small lots and, often, higher prices. That higher priced wine may ultimately be a better wine, but is it a good value?
Are the differences good or bad?
We do not like this trend as we like the more complex wines that will age into an interesting mature wine, and, of course, we prefer to find that at a reasonable price.
Where have your wine travels taken you over the years?
We are fortunate to have many wonderful wineries nearby, and we generally do day and weekend wine tasting trips in northern California. Some areas that we frequent are the Carneros region, the Sonoma valley, the Russian River area, the Livermore area, and Amador County, and the Mother Lode area, but there are many more. When we travel to other areas in California and to other states, if there are wineries we will generally try them, but we do not travel long distances just to taste wine.
How do wines from your native California stack up with those from other wine regions you have visited?
We have not liked any as well as California wines; although we acknowledge that this is partially bias. We have tasted interesting, drinkable wines, but haven’t found them to have the character we like. Sometimes the variety is not our favorite; many Oregon wineries make good Pinot Noir, but we do not care for Pinot Noir. Admittedly, there are many California wines that we do not like, but we have so many to choose from that it is not a problem to find wines that suit our taste.
I know you often do blind tastings at home. Are those tastings just for fun or do you believe that blind tasting really helps you determine which wines are best?
The wine group started as a pretty serious wine tasting, at least 25 years ago. It was an opportunity to try new wines and share thoughts and to try wines that we might not purchase for ourselves. Over time, the composition of the group has changed. We now pair the wines with a dinner. At times, we are surprised where a particular wine lands in the rankings and which wine may be the best value. Doing it as a blind tasting does take away everyone’s predisposition for different wineries, etc. We have toyed with putting the same wine in multiple bottles to see what would happen. As with any group of twelve, we have different tastes in wine, which adds an interesting element to the tastings. We also go on weekend wine tasting trips, and the opportunity to experience the wines of a new region is especially interesting when you do it with a group.
What are some of your favorite wines today?
It is hard to say what our favorite wine is. There are wines that we drink regularly because we enjoy them and they are more reasonably priced. And there are wines that are wonderful, but we don’t have them very often. Vintage also makes a difference in our experience. We had the opportunity to have Kathryn Kennedy Cabernet last weekend, and it was outstanding, but it is not something we get very often. We also were able to taste at Alysian, a small Russian River winery and had a particularly good Pinot Noir. Since we don’t usually like Pinot Noir, it was quite a find. As far as varietals go, for reds, we both like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends; in addition, Dink likes Zinfandel, and Marie often likes Syrah. For whites, we both like Chardonnay. As for what we buy the most: Retzlaff Cabernet and Retzlaff Blend, and Schug Chardonnay.
What suggestions do you have for someone just getting into wine?
We would recommend that they try different varieties and different viticultural areas. Over time, they will develop a sense of what wines are a good fit for them. And when they go wine tasting, try to get away from the glitzy tasting room. There are still wineries out there where you can come away with an education about their wines and with a real feeling for the winery and the people behind it. A wine tasting group is also a good option; it allows you to expand your experience. And often restaurants offer wine tastings or winemaker’s dinners that can be really interesting experiences.
Prices for many of the better wines have really dropped in recent times as a result of the recession. Do you think that the best buying opportunity is now or that prices will go even lower?
We have not seen a reduction in prices here so cannot really comment on that. What we have seen are some sales on case purchases and free shipping. We do purchase futures, which gives you a discounted price, from some wineries where there has been consistency in their product, but fewer wineries are offering that option.
Is there anything else you believe our readers would like to know about your life in wine? Any interesting stories you have to share from along the wine trail?
Of course, there is the story of taking you wine tasting, and the difference a glass makes. After 40 years, there are just too many wonderful stories to include them all. But the things we remember above all are the interactions with so many interesting people, including immigrant winemakers and gentleman farmers. Our interest in wine over those 40 years has allowed us to develop an appreciation for wine and the craft that it is.
Many thanks to Dink and Marie for sharing their experiences and thoughts with us. And, personally, I can’t thank them enough for introducing me to fine wine and setting me on my own wine journey.
Filed under: General Wine Information, Interview