Tuesday, April 3, 2007

BYOB! Obester Winery

A Juicy Alternative to Napa’s Affluence

The premise of Bottle & Cork is simple: Arrive at the Half Moon Bay bottling business with your own empty and rinsed wine bottles (or buy 750ml bottles on site at $1 a pop) and let the purple-stained staff fill them with the day’s featured wine for less than $5 per bottle. It’s kind of like bringing your own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket, only better.

Visitors to Northern California, and natives themselves, often associate wine tasting with a day trip about an hour or so north of San Francisco to Napa or Sonoma Valley. They rise early, shower, and don their finest linen summer dresses or pair of Bermuda shorts. They go in late August when it’s deafeningly hot, the sunshine pulsating down on tidy yet endless rows of vines, their reflector tags (used to ward off birds) shimmering like knife blades in the light. On an ambling tour around the mathematically maintained vineyards, the idyllic fruit will look pregnant with lush juices, ready to burst at the slightest touch. Wine country visitors will pop off to the local gourmet market to buy stinky cheeses and French bread, nibbling these between flight tastings.

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay area, it took me a couple of extravagant trips to Sonoma before I learned that there were more outback wineries, often closer to home, both literally and sentimentally. I was informed of the denim-casual wonders of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was instructed to drive north toward Sonoma but to veer west off the main freeway and head to the Russian River Valley, where the more woodsy locals spend summers lounging in inner tubes that drift them down the lazy river. And sometime during my knowledge growth period, I stumbled across a little place called Obester Winery on Highway 92, a winding little two-lane highway that dips over a small mountain ridge and down a steep hillside into a cool, damp, sun-dappled valley.

Obester is for both casual wine drinkers and connoisseurs... and the crowd that’s not necessarily interested in what the North Bay has to offer... and the earth-conscious who not only recycle in their city bins, but also avidly reuse what they’ve already got on hand (“If you bring your own bottles, they must be clean and washed—we'll do the rest”)... and anyone decked out in $3.99 gas station sunglasses. There’s a sense that not necessarily everyone at Obester has showered that day, nor have their dogs, who are barking from the back of a pickup truck in the driveway. Obester is inviting to all.

A small gravel parking area spills back toward two wood barns. From the road, the barns call attention to the winery, which is otherwise easy to miss when navigating the twists and turns of Highway 92. The larger of the two structures, industrial and utilitarian, serves as a bottling area, housing great steel tanks that loom like totem poles. Barrels guard and hinder access to the far reaches of the barn. Hand-operating corking machinery, dozens of cardboard cases stocked with empty green bottles, and slop buckets of spilled wine are all in plain view. It’s messy, but wine-bottling itself is messy, and I for one appreciate the unadulterated setup. The two-story tall barn opens on both ends like a hangar, and a pleasantly tart odor wafts through the open air. Mile-high pines and eucalyptus trees envelope the surrounding valley, their earthy aromas calming against the sour slippery grape-stained wood board floors. It’s a long way from Sonoma.

While there are no hard and fast rules about dress code in the North Bay grape fields, women generally wear large straw hats and light linen dresses, strappy sandals, and possibly Dolce & Gabana sunglasses. Men’s attire might include Docker shorts, loafers, and polo tees. Visitors tour dark, damp storage cellars that resemble European caves in climate, but Italian cathedrals in ambiance. A day in Napa ends with a casual, albeit semi-posh crowd lounging around a dark wood bar while bartenders pour an inch of wine into pristine glasses. It’s the see-and-be-seen portion of the day. Credit cards appear. Cases are ordered. Egos are pampered and most go home feeling a little flushed in the cheek and in the wallet.

And for many, this scene is what identifies a trip to the wineries. It feeds the stereotype that Californians seek — and receive — the highest of quality in merchandise and experience. It’s a tannin-flavored sip of the American Dream.

At Obester, there’s a gift shop that doubles as a tasting room, but it resembles more of a country living room than a high-roller’s club. It’s in the smaller of the two barns, a shack-style prairie house selling gourmet mustards, honeys, jams, t-shirts, tea towels, and aprons. It’s modest, and on the two occasions I went to Obester, it was nearly empty. The Obester crowd hangs out close to the slop of the bottling. A few wine glasses are scattered about, and samples are given freely (no need to win back your $3 tasting fee with purchase). The pretenses are lower here too because no one shows up on a Bottle & Cork day without the intention of bringing home a case or two.

The upcoming Bottle & Cork days at Obester Winery are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday April 28 (red wine), Saturday, May 5 (white), and Saturday, June 9 (red). Prices, which include corks and labels are $4.45 per 750 ml bottle, $8 per 1.5L, $17 per 4L, and $18.50 for gallon jugs. Obester bottles great wines grown all over the local region, most recently a 2005 Barbera from Mendocino and a 2005 Chardonnay from Monterey, though they don’t name the type of wine until just before the Bottle & Cork date – check the web site for updates: http://obesterwinery.com.

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