The Call of the Wine

The sun sets into the fog at San Simeon State Park, California. (William Dotinga / CNS)

The West is a great place to live. That I’ve never lived anywhere else might make such a claim suspect. On the other hand, that I’ve never left is a ringing endorsement of the validity of my statement.

The benefits of living in the West, California in particular, are legion and legendary. The weather. The wealth of things to do, to be lived and experienced. The geological and biological distinctiveness. The endless possibilities of life-altering road trips because the West has asphalt for arteries and highway markers as a skeleton.

The rarest and most precious gift of living here is that, where I live anyway, I’m never more than a couple hours’ drive from a winery I’ve never visited or never knew existed. Little treasures tucked away in sleepy hamlets, hidden in the blink-and-you-miss-them burgs that blanket California like the poppies in spring. This is not the California people talk about, fantasize about visiting. This is not the California of flying elephants and mouse ears, of Tinseltown glitter or bridges painted flaming sunset red, of skyscrapers and 39 million souls. This is the real California: tiny towns and wildflowers and wine.

And not traffic-congested, $30-tasting-fee, four-dollar-sign-Michelin-rated-restaurant wine towns, either. That’s not the California I’m talking about. I’m sure it’s a fine California, that one. But it’s not my California.

I’m the only person I know who will turn a camping trip into a wine tasting tour that just happens to involve sleeping in a tent. My partner and I went camping at San Simeon State Park some years ago, and we could have taken Highway 1 to get there. Most people would and should – it’s breathtaking and beautiful and one of the best drives in the paved world. It’s a must for the bucket list.

I’ve done it. But there are no vineyards, no wineries, no tasting rooms. Just lots of hairpin turns and sheer drops into the Pacific and even more cars, RVs, and Harley-Davidsons. These latter three are my California too, whether I like it or not.

Highway 101, on the other hand, runs right through Paso Robles. And then there’s Highway 46, and Templeton, and casks of God’s nectar hiding behind friendly, welcoming iron gates that open on the winding gravel driveways that are the road to Heaven. Our conversation from this point in our journey starts with “One more?” and ends with “Why not? We’re on vacation!” with not much in between. One can’t talk much when one’s mouth is pressed to a wineglass.

We did finally make it to San Simeon. We even got there more or less on time, if there is such a thing as time on a camping trip. We pitched our tent and opened our boxes of Target wine (don’t scoff – it’s won awards, lots of them, besides being a great value and easy to pack) and we toasted each other and our life together as we always do.

That first night we made a friend. We called him – or her, we never became intimate enough friends to know which – Miko. Miko felt comfortable enough with us, however, to begin rifling through our food boxes and ice chests, looking for dinner. I suppose this sort of familiarity comes naturally to raccoons like Miko, but we were on a tight budget and had to eat for three more days. So before retiring, we stowed all our foodstuffs in the car and our newfound friend went hungry that night. Or, more likely, to a neighboring campsite.

We’re wine snobs in our own way, my partner and I, and at the time we took glass stemware with us on camping trips. We were probably the only campers in the West to do this, and in the wee hours of the second night we discovered why.

We’d put our food away again, since Miko had returned and was clearly much hungrier than he’d been the previous night. But we didn’t put away the stemware. This oversight became evident at 3 a.m., when Miko’s chattering, followed by the chilly tinkling sound of breaking glass, woke me from a wine-induced coma.

When I went out to investigate after fumbling with an endless array of blankets, clothing, and zipper upon zipper (humans have created no barrier more impenetrable than the tent door), Miko was nowhere to be found. I heard only the sounds of the ocean, the frogs in the creek, and his mocking laughter echoing far across the sleeping campground. We had hidden our food; he had broken our precious wineglasses. We were now even.

Except not really.

Our last night at San Simeon, the wine flowed freely into our plastic cups. A high-class frat party, the red Dixie cups, the gigantic bonfire to use the wood we’d bought way too much of, the stumbling to bathrooms that didn’t seem so far away (or so dark) before. A high-class frat party with only two attendees. Three, since Miko lurked in the shadows, waiting for us to make the fatal, drunken mistake he’d been anticipating for three days.

We didn’t disappoint. Oh, we packed up the food, somehow, in our inebriated machinations to prepare for bed. What we forgot to stow away were the boxes of our cherished wine, one of them largely untouched. For two wineauxs on a very tight monthly budget who often have to eschew the pleasures of the fruit of the vine, it was an oversight of monumental proportions.

Who knew raccoons like wine? More to the point, who knew one raccoon could put away the equivalent of five bottles of wine in a single sitting? If I’d accomplished the same feat I would have been found where I’d fallen, soaked to the skin by the coastal dew and that night‘s dinner, with a colossal sulfite pain in my head that would have lasted a week.

Miko is a bigger man than I, because we found no trace of him in the morning. Just a box of wine that had been clawed, poked, prodded, opened and emptied, and dozens of tiny muddy footprints on the tablecloth. Apparently drunken raccoons aren’t above dancing on tables when they’ve tied a few on. Or a few dozen.

Nocturnal creature or not, I know Miko was watching as we packed up the next morning and drove away, several bottles of wine lighter than the night before. I know he was laughing at us. A couple of easy touches who performed exactly as he knew we would. Give us enough nights, enough wine, and we were bound to slip up.

And as we pulled into the driveway of the first tasting room back in Paso Robles, I found myself thinking of Miko. Hoping that he would amend his thieving ways and leave the drunken debauchery to humans. Humans who love the wine more. Humans who paid for the wine in the first place.

I also hoped that he was suffering from the biggest hangover the raccoon world has ever known. I’m not above a bit of schadenfreude among friends. Especially friends who overstay their welcome, break my stemware, drink all my wine, and never bring any of their own to share. Maybe it’s not neighbor-like of me, but they don’t call it the Wild West for nothing.

Note: If I’m driving, I always winetaste responsibly by taking a sip and pouring the rest of the taste into the dump can. Or, more typically, giving the rest to my partner.

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