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WineInk: Social Gathering

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

2010 Stuhlmuller Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley

It was just last November that a violent brush fire raged through Sonoma County near the town of Healdsburg. Firefighters drew a line in the vineyards and made their stand along Soda Creek Road at Stuhlmuller. Fortunately they were successful. This wine had the earthy, fragment aromas that would be found in a quality Bordeaux wine. The tannins have softened but the intensity of the dark fruits remain. If this wine were in a lineup of top California Cabernets, many more expensive, and lauded Bordeaux, it would be right at home.

“Can you pop by Saturday?” the text message read. “My front yard. Socially distanced wine tasting. 8 people. Masks. All healthy.” It was an offer, after nearly 60 days of isolation, that I could not refuse.

There is nothing more social than wine. Its very existence is predicated on the purpose of bringing people together to drink, eat and talk. And for millennia it has done just that. But as we have endured social distancing, wine drinkers have been forced to suppress our communal DNA. We have entered into a weird paradigm where drinking alone, or in “virtual” tastings, has become the new normal. Neither is a substitute for the actual experience of sharing wine in person. With real people.

As I walked the path to the party on a splendid Saturday eve accented by spring green and a cool northerly breeze shaking the trees, I found myself feeling nostalgic for a different place and time. One where it was natural to greet friends with a handshake, a hug or a kiss. One where it was OK to sample a sip of wine from another’s glass. One where we weren’t in bondage due to a rampant virus.

But that is not where we are right now. And, while I may have been a touch trepidatious at first, my comfort level quickly rose as I saw my fellow wine lovers were maintaining the edicts of Pitkin County’s “5 Commitments of Containment.”

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The tasting started with bubbles, of course, and our host extended his hand to pour a grower Champagne from Laherte Fréres into my glass.

“We have six wines,” he said from behind his gifted custom mask emblazoned with the Rolling Stones’ signature lips and tongue logo on the exterior. “You can open the wine you brought but everyone will pour their wines for the others so only one person will touch any one bottle.”

He also pointed to a charcuterie board with an assortment of meats and cheeses and adjacent plastic utensils. “Just make yourself a plate using the forks and be sure to not double dip.” It all seemed quite reasonable and fit Colorado’s “safer at home” standards that went into effect that day, May 9.

For the next couple of hours we sipped six sensational wines. It started with a pair of Terlano releases from the mountainous Alto Adige region of Northern Italy, a white pinot bianco, chardonnay blend and a very light and elegant 100% pinot noir that could have been a Burgundy. Young, fresh and distinctly Italian, they were perfect for openers.

From there we proceeded to taste three California cabernet sauvignon wines that had been decanted prior to our arrival. The first two were Napa classics made by cult-cab superstar Kirk Venge, a 2015 MacCauley Reserve Cabernet and a Venge Family Reserve Cab from the same vintage. The Venge Vineyards Family Reserve is the flagship wine of the estate and a stunner with ripe cherries and firm tannins.

They were followed by our final wine, from Stuhlmuller in the Alexander Valley, that had a decade on it as it was from the 2010 vintage. All three were potent and powerful and deeply dark in the glass. The only thing lacking was a 3-inch-thick bone-in ribeye on the grill on the patio. Next time, perhaps.

As the sun set behind us and the dogs and a pair of ducks (“Hymie and Sophia have been here since I moved here 20 years ago,” said our host) milled about, the guests — all of whom like me have been isolating at home for close to two months — spoke about the strange days we are enduring. There have been highlights, of course, days skinning up the mountains for turns and long spring bike rides to the Maroon Bells and Independence Pass were mentioned. But most lamented the lack of contact with friends and family that has been the signature of these times. And the solo sipping.

For me, I was happy to simply stand my ground, a half-dozen feet from the others, nodding my head, extending greetings and exchanging stories, with a smile beneath my cloth mask, which I periodically dropped for a sip. It was a pleasure to be with a group of likeminded people (and their dogs) as we sat outdoors in the sinking spring sun with fine wine in our glasses.

May this Saturday tasting be a harbinger of better times ahead.


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