The California Legislature should declare “wine-tasting” the official state pastime.
Nearly every fundraiser, for example, now has a wine-tasting component, often featuring local wines and their makers. We take for granted that wineries themselves offer their red, white and rosé beauties for potential customers to try. (Vineyards in a remote location? No problem, just open a tasting room in a town or join a group of wineries that share tasting facilities.)
You can take wine-tasting classes and wine-tasting bike tours. You can join a private wine-tasting group. There are dedicated events that feature tastings of Rhone-style wines, of Riojas, of Alsatian-type wines, of pinot noirs.
Our area certainly shares in the wine-tasting craze. My weekly issue of “The Juice for Sacramento” regularly lists nearly 20 wine-tasting events. Although Rominger West, which offered daily tasting, closed this year, the short trip to Winters gets you to several tasting rooms, including Berryessa Gap, Turkovich Family and the multi-winery RootStock.
In Davis itself, Putah Creek Winery opens its doors twice a year for a wine-tasting extravaganza (coming right up on Saturday, Oct. 27), and the Sundstrom Hill folks are always happy to pour you a taste at their every-other-Thursday and first Saturday music events. Every Tuesday evening I conduct a small, informal wine-tasting at Monticello Seasonal Cuisine ($5), and most Fridays the Davis Food Co-op offers samples of some of its wines for just $1 a taste. There are, besides, private wine-tasting groups all over town.
Therefore, you might excuse my skepticism when I heard that someone in town was opening a dedicated wine-tasting bar tended by a dispensing machine. “What fun is that?” I asked myself. “What would be the attraction of a wine machine when I can so easily engage with passionate wine folks across a pouring table?”
So I put off visiting the long-ago promised but newly opened Vini, 611 Second St. Early reports (“too noisy to carry on a conversation,” “confusing,” “unhelpful,” “you can run up a big bill really fast”) abetted my procrastination. But it is, after all, one of those locally owned business that I’m always touting — and this one’s a wine source! So as soon as the early fall heat wave abated, I made a reluctant date with myself to do my Duty.
I arrived around 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. A few other tasters were there, but carrying on a conversation was no problem at all. Owner Jeff Day (Davis High Class of 1977) admitted that had I come later, the atmosphere would have been much more “vibrant,” but I would expect that on a weekend night in downtown Davis.
The system may have been confusing when Vini first opened, but Jeff’s wine expert, Jonathan Klonecke, has now got the 70 or so wines well-organized, well-described and easy to find. Jeff was there when I came and was terrifically helpful (again, this may not be the case at the height of the weekend evening crowds). And I thought the prices were entirely reasonable. I did notice one $10 and one $6.50 taste, but most wines cost only $2 to $3.25 for a generous (2 ounce) pour, which means an entire big glass for $6 to $10.
The system is simple. You put money on a card (renewable, recyclable), say $10 (the minimum), put the card into the machine and your glass (itself of excellent quality) under the spout — and press the button. If you have only $2 left and you want to try a $3 wine, you can add a dollar to your card, or you can just press the button for a $2 portion. (The card is good for two years, so leftover value is not a problem.) When you get your taste, you can sit and sip and listen to mellow jazz.
The wines are organized in flights according to taste or grape or region (there’s a pinot noir flight, for example, and an Italian flight), but you can pick your wines from any of the flights. You can also get six premium draft beers, dessert and sparkling wines by the glass (not in the machine, which doesn’t preserve bubbles), and small plates by local Stone Catering. A limited number of wines are also available by the glass, but you can, if you want, give yourself three pours of any wine in the machine for a do-it-yourself 6 ounces.
If you taste a wine you love, you can buy a whole bottle — either to drink there or to take home with you. That’s a nice feature since most of these wines aren’t easily available.
The big question, though, is “how’s the wine?” And the answer: really good. Jonathan and Jeff have done a great job with the diverse selection. Roughly half domestic and half imported, they range from local bottles to Oregon offerings to Alsatian whites to two wines from Slovenia.
There are many wines I’m eager to try, which will mean multiple trips, all of which I’m looking forward to. I did, of course, sample a couple on my first visit, both of them excellent. The first was a 2010 Sancerre that was, well, a classic Sancerre — citrus-y (with a touch of stone fruit), crisp, refreshing and delicious. I followed that with a Lemelson pinot noir (Thea’s Selection) from Willamette. Again, a classic Oregon pinot — bright with cherry, raspberry and spice — and relatively low in alcohol.
Jeff and Jonathan will be phasing out and phasing in wines on a regular basis. Right now the summer rosés are being replaced by three hip “orange” wines (white varietals left on the skins for a time). A couple of new French wines had just arrived that hadn’t yet been put on a “flight” list. One current selection, a Todd Taylor Zin, is available no place else except the winery.
Added advantage: The Enomatic dispenser has no “attitude.” Nor does Jeff.
I’m beginning to think of Vini as a sort of wine-tasting playground. Though Duty dragged me there, Fun will fetch me back. Maybe this afternoon.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at email@example.com. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com