In reality, wine trips are a totally different thing. More often than not, the trips are like death marches where you and a group of people in the trade you probably don’t know (but will soon know all too well) are stuck in a van for hours a day for a week or more. And the daily schedule of appointments can be brutal with four or five stops a day and between 60-100 wines tasted.
Hopefully the food will be decent. Many times it’s not. Because wine is involved with every meal save breakfast there’s entirely too much protein and little in the way of green. There was a time when vegetarians perished on one of these trips. Now it’s better but vegans are still in the same boat. Traveling in Spain or Italy and you’re a vegan? Good luck.
Eventually, the metabolic seesaw of stimulants, depressants, and too little sleep takes its toll. Then someone in the van gets sick. If one person gets a cold or worse, everyone gets it. And there’s always the possibility for a shared food poisoning experience.
There’s another aspect to wine trips rarely mentioned, but experienced by all: the drivers. They can be consummate pros or ordinary hacks who somehow got roped into driving your group around for the day or a week. The young Greek lad who drove our group around his country for 10 days comes to mind. He wore the same polyester disco shirt the entire trip. I tried not to get close to him after the first couple of days. I’m sure he just stood the shirt up in his hotel room at night. And he definitely redefined the term “terroir.” Yes, car experiences on wine trips can sometimes be the stuff of legend. But they can also be some of the most terrifying moments in one’s life. Here are four personal fear and loathing experiences on the wine trail.
At the time I was working for the artist formerly known as the original wine.com. The trip was billed as a “Sommelier Summit” for a group of august U.S. wine professionals. For several days, we were shown wine country in and around Santiago and Casablanca near Valparaiso. On the last day of the tour I opted out of sightseeing with the group to instead go to a small winery in the Aconcagua about 90 minutes from where we were staying. My assignment was to taste through their inventory and choose some selections to direct import for wine.com.
I was picked up promptly at 8:00 AM by a young goateed lad in a smallish Euro car. I piled into the front seat and immediately noticed two things: first, that the floor was littered with trash and fast-food wrappers, and second, there was a small plastic statuette of the virgin attached to the dashboard. Little did I know I’d be praying to the tiny icon in a matter of minutes.
Goateed lad immediately took off full blast from the hotel into traffic. In no time we were on the highway, which wasn’t actually a highway but a two-lane affair with a middle passing lane. My driver immediately started to pass any car or truck he could. In short order I discovered the gestalt of highway driving in Chile: your single mission was to go as fast as you could and pass every vehicle in front of you to do just that. Using your blinker was less than optional. But there’s more. All the vehicles on the road with you were trying to do the same—even those in the opposite lane. This meant that the middle lane became a dangerous DMZ of sorts in which a never-ending game of chicken was played with the bigger vehicle or driver having the largest cajones winning quick and perilous stand offs.
Within minutes I was gripping the hand rest with one hand, the seat with the other, and repeatedly stomping on an imaginary brake pedal which was in reality a pile of trash. I must have told goatee man that we weren’t in a hurry at least a dozen times. He nodded every time and then stepped on the gas. At some point during the first hour I had the sudden realization that my life was in the young man’s hands. And if the gods were willing for us to live to see another day it would be. If not, at least the end would be quick. But it would also be messy.
In time we did make it to the winery which was in the foothills of the 20,000-foot Mt. Aconcagua. It turns out that goateed lad was one of the sons of the owner. The latter took me through the winery, which was not much more than a concrete and corrugated metal building filled with tanks and barrels. Then we sat at a table and tasted through over 20 wines, mostly red. I made notes and chose six of the samples. We then talked about pricing and the logistics of shipping the wines to California. After a quick lunch it was time for the return trip back to the hotel. It was just as harrowing. But I don’t remember most of it because I slept—or pretended to.
I was in Portugal with friend and fellow MS Keith Goldston under the auspices of AMORIM, the giant cork producer. For the better part of week we had toured cork forest, cork production plants, and a few wineries. Towards the end of the trip we drove from Porto to the Douro Valley located about two hours away. The Douro is one of the oldest vineyard areas in Europe. It’s also a barren moonscape that resembles the Grand Canyon, with vines planted on steep craggy hillsides that rise hundreds of feet up from the Douro River. Dynamite is actually used to put in new vineyards. The climate is also extreme, with temps averaging over a hundred degrees during the summer. Fortunately we were there in March before the heat set in.
Our driver for the week was the lovely Maria Rosita. She was bubbly, charming, and talked a mile-a-second. Maria was perpetually on her flip phone (remember, this was 2006) giving trip updates to her boss or chatting with friends. Maria also drove fast. Insanely fast. We must have made the trip between Lisbon and Porto in record time.
Our first appointment in the Douro lasted until late afternoon, when it began to rain. Keith and I piled into the back of the rental with Maria at the wheel. Our destination was the hotel/restaurant for the night. In no time it was dark and pouring. Once settled behind the wheel, Maria rolled her window down (deluge and all), lit a cigarette, and then put on a cassette (yes, a cassette) of the Rolling Stones full blast. She had already told us multiple times that they were her favorite band. Maria then called one of her best friends to talk about the soccer game the night before between Porto—her team—and a close rival.
From there, things went like this: it’s pitch dark and raining in sheets. From my window I can see the lights of buildings on the banks of the river hundreds of feet below. The town of Pinhão, our destination, is blinking in the distance. Maria is driving as fast as the tiny single lane road—now shiny and slick–will allow. There are wickedly sharp switchbacks and hairpin turns at regular intervals—but they’re not well marked. Meanwhile, Maria is yelling into her phone and waving her cigarette out the window with the other. I’m not sure how the car is being steered. With each turn Keith and I are tossed against each other or against our door. But the finishing touch is the music. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is blaring from the fuzzy warbles sounds system. The song has never been the same for me. It never will be.
Same trip the next day. In the morning we toured Quinta do Crasto, a Port producer. After lunch Maria dropped us off at Niepoort, a historic family-owned house that specializes in aged Tawny Ports and dry wines from Port varieties. Dirk Niepoort is one of Portugal’s most important winemakers. He’s also an affable no-nonsense guy. After introductions we piled into his Land Rover for the trip up a very steep hill—as in, a 40-plus-percent grade—to the winery. The Land Rover was ancient: one of those thick rattly metal cans with an engine and drive train that are good for nothing other than traversing off-road or up really steep hills at a snail’s pace.
I got in the front seat next to Dirk. Keith and Roger Archey from the PR company were in the back. I immediately noticed that there were no seat belts and mentioned it to Dirk. He looked at me as if I had two heads. “Why would you need them up there?” he asked. I shrugged. We then chug-chugged in slow motion up the bumpy dirt road to the top.
Just as we reached the summit Dirk suddenly said, “Shit, I left the keys down at the house.” At this point any normal/sane person would have slowly turned the car around to go back downhill. But not Dirk. With left hand on the steering wheel, he clanked the mighty Land Rover into reverse. Then he turned around to look backwards and told us, “you’d better hold on.” What followed was 30 or more of the longest, scariest-ass seconds of my life. Any wrong move with the steering wheel, however slight, and we would have somersaulted hundreds of feet to the bottom of the vineyard. We might even have made the river. It’s been done before. Roger yipped at one point. I just held on to anything I could for dear life. I’m not sure about Keith. After an eternity we reached the bottom of the road and zipped up to the side door of the house. Then Dirk looked at us and said “what?”
IV: May 2008 – Palermo, Sicily
Flying into Palermo from Rome took all of 35 minutes. Unfortunately, my suitcase did not make it. Trying to make sense of that with the woman handling missing luggage was hit and miss at best. But I did show her my passport and the name of the hotel so there was a glimmer of hope.
After, I met up with a colleague and we grabbed a cab to the hotel. The cabbie nailed every stereotype of his ilk possible. He was large, completely unkempt, and given to laying on the horn, waving his fist, and screaming at any car that wasn’t going fast enough. And this was even before we got out of the parking lot. Once we got on the freeway he hit his stride. The good news was that the hotel was only 30 minutes from the airport.
By the time we got into Palermo it was rush hour. No surprise that the cabbie became all the more incensed by stopped traffic, muttering and periodically leaning out his window to verbally assault some random driver who then did likewise. When in Palermo…. But scary cab driver had one more trick up his sleeve. At some point he made a sharp left turn down a major one-way street–going the wrong way. Cabbie guy took the far-right lane, lowered his head, laid on the horn, and drove. Cars and trucks coming toward us scattered like pigeons on a playground, some ending up on the sidewalk. I had one of those moments described in the Chile incident above. There was nothing I could do and it was only a matter of seconds before this crazy moron got us all killed. But it didn’t happen. Instead he whipped a hard right turn and screeched to a halt in front our hotel. Before we could even move he was out of the car, trunk opened, and my colleague’s suitcase tossed in front of the bell stand. We got out and he immediately asked to be paid. Basta! he said with his hand out. I paid him and he got back in the cab muttering and giving me the eye. But there was a happy ending to the story. My suitcase turned up around midnight. And I had lived to be able to open it.