It used to be that if you wanted to sample wines and lived in Modesto, you'd have to make a trip to Napa or Sonoma, which more than likely required a night's stay.
Day trips to Amador County and, more recently, Calaveras County, have steadily gained in popularity. Both foothill regions offer terrific tasting opportunities without the expense of lodging and, for that matter, increasingly expensive tasting room charges.
Fortunately for us, the opportunity to taste wines has skyrocketed over the past year or two with the growth in neighborhood wine tasting bars, wine tasting fund-raisers and winemaker dinners at finer restaurants.
Wine tastings are terrific ways to find out which wines you enjoy and to educate yourself on
A handful of wine bars around town now offer tasting opportunities that change nightly or weekly. Count on an informative discussion of the wines, which could be local or from the other side of the planet. Look for theme tastings and special prices on featured selections, as well as winemakers occasionally promoting their wines in person.
Winemaker dinners tend to offer a flavorful opportunity for chefs to showcase their skills beyond the regular menu. Matching a winery's lineup can be inspiring, and challenging, to a chef. I always made a practice of tasting the wines several weeks in advance of the event.
The chef and I would put the suggested wines in an appropriate order, with whites before reds, and light wines before heavier selections. This careful arrangement is what's called a flight, with lighter, drier wines leading to heavier, sweeter wines.
Next, we would discuss possible food pairings as they related to seasonal availability or the winery's theme. For instance, a winter dinner featuring a winery specializing in full-flavored Italian-style whites or reds would include an Italian-based course or a menu with pairings utilizing heartier winter ingredients. Hothouse tomatoes or strawberries should not make an appearance on such a menu in January.
Finally, these dinners give us a chance to focus on one winery or wine region with a representative discussing the evening's lineup. Judging by the usual increase in noise levels as these dinners proceed, you may want to ask questions early, then enjoy the wine and food pairings.
As for attending one of the larger fund-raising tastings or even visiting winery tasting rooms, a plan of attack might be helpful and give you a better understanding of particular wines.
Some large event tastings can offer in excess of 100 wines. The April 20 Columbia Wine Tasting will sport more than 50 wineries in Columbia State Historic Park, and you should not consider trying them all. Consider a game plan that may include focusing on several selected wine types and making the rounds looking for different winery styles. Start with whites, then reds and finally dessert wines. Try something new, as there are plenty of exciting new varietals being made, and we drink enough chardonnay at home.
Ask questions and pace yourself. Drink water as you go. It is OK to not finish or swallow a taste; buckets are on the tables for spitting and dumping.
A visit to the foothill wineries of Shenandoah Valley in Amador County or the tasting rooms on Main street in Murphys on Highway 4 gives tasters an opportunity to investigate upward of 15 or more wineries within a short distance of one another. While many of these wineries offer just a handful of wines to try, some offer a staggering dozen or more. Going online and checking regional Web sites gives you ample information on the various wineries, including their possible lineup and winemaking focus.
Once again, you do not have to try everything offered. A trip to Murphys may include focusing on Rhone-style wines or Spanish-type varietals, for which the region is becoming known. In many cases these areas also offer an opportunity to meet the winemakers, a scenario that is unheard of in Napa.
In any case, spring is a great time for wine investigation. The calendar seems loaded with opportunities to expand wine knowledge while putting an end to this past winter's doldrums. Happy tasting.
In addition to writing a weekly wine column for The Bee, Tom Bender is a wine instructor at Columbia College's Culinary Arts Program. He also manages O'Brien's Market Dale Road wine department, where he conducts weekly wine tasting programs.