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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Lane Change

Days of wine and 10 pins

By Bob Johnson

LET'S PLAY word association. C'mon--it'll be fun. I'll list a word or two, and you say the first beverage that comes to mind. That's right, I want you to say the drink type out loud; depending on what you say and where you're reading this, it could be a new way to meet people . . . or get arrested. Ready to discover on which side of normal you reside? Here goes:

1. Gin and . . .

2. Oreo cookies and . . .

3. Bowling and . . .

Seeking America's best and brightest for this highly scientific study, we surveyed only Florida residents who voted for Buchanan but meant to vote for Gore.

The most popular answers gleaned from this brain trust, in order:

1. Tonic.

2. Milk.

3. Beer.

Given the answer to word-association item No. 3, it may surprise you to learn how your faithful chronicler of all things vino got into wine.

It was through bowling.

Yup, the very sport/recreation/way-to-kill-a-few-hours-on-a-Saturday-night that prompted syndicated sports radio blabbermouth Jim Rome to recently rant: "Anything that you get better at as you get blasted can't be a sport."

We'll save the "bowling-as-sport" debate for another time. For now, I'm here to tell you that were it not for bowling, you would not be having the pleasure of reading this wine-themed story.Since you're dying to know, here's how it happened . . .

Fourteen years--and even more moons--ago, a group of bowling writers (please don't laugh) from the southern half of our fair state was transported to a Bay Area bowling center by a manufacturer of synthetic lanes. Reason: to examine, toss a few balls on, and presumably subsequently write about these high-tech substitutes for maple and pine.

That's right, a paid junket for bowling writers (I asked you not to laugh).

Following the festivities at the bowl, our host treated us to dinner at a Yugoslavian restaurant. We were instructed to order anything we wanted and to select a few bottles from the wine list.

A couple of the older writers immediately went into a panic, simultaneously realizing there were no wines named Bud, Miller, or Coors. (They have since retired to Florida.)

So it was left to us younger guys to make the appropriate vino selections. Not wanting to appear uncouth or uninformed, we stood up the hardcover wine list on the table in an attempt to camouflage our blindly pointing at a selection on a randomly opened page.

Wine and Bowling Paraphernalia Accustomed as we were to "California Chablis" with steak and "Hearty Burgundy" with fish, we were completely unprepared for the culinary scenario that ensued. A buddy and I each ordered pepper steak, and the wine we "selected" was a bottle of merlot from a winery named Duckhorn.

Neither the varietal nor the vintner meant anything to us until we took our first sips of wine after our first bites of meat.

We didn't know why, but we did know that we were consuming perhaps the greatest meal of our lives. Fortunately, neither of us hailing from America's southeast quadrant, we were smart enough to realize that the wine had something to do with it. (We certainly had no idea that we had stumbled upon perhaps the most revered brand of merlot being made at the time.)

Back at the swank bowling writers' hotel that night (you're laughing again; that's not polite), we perused the Rand McNally atlas and noticed that the Napa Valley was less than an hour away. So instead of heading back south the next day, we trekked northward.

What we found was heaven on earth: dozens and dozens of wineries, and almost all of them pouring free wine! Good thing my buddy's wife was along to serve as chauffeur, because by 11 a.m., we were feeling no pain . . . swaying in the breeze . . . completely snockered . . . OK, I'll stop sugar-coating it: we were shit-faced.

But that didn't stop us. No, sir (or madam). After a quick stop at the A&W on Highway 29 for a Papa Burger and a frosty mug, we were back at it. By the end of the day--which turned out to be 4:30 p.m., the latest we could find a still-open tasting room--we had hit 14 wineries and sampled 86 different wines.

As wine newbies, we were not familiar with the concept of sipping, swirling, and spitting. Furthermore, we considered it impolite not to finish a free sample. (What kind of guest would insult a host in such a way?)

It's entirely possible that our wine adventure that day in 1986 is responsible for the tasting fees now commonly charged at tasting rooms up, down, and across the Napa Valley. (You're welcome.)

In the nearly decade and a half since that wild bowling-and-wine weekend, we've learned quite a few things. Among them:

1. All things in moderation.

2. Spitting is a good thing.

3. Nothing, but nothing, beats an Oreo dipped in milk.

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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