I’ve never been the getaway driver for a bank heist, but I have been the wheel man for a self-guided wine tour. In terms of pressure, I have to imagine they’re about the same.
The wine tour was my idea, so its success or failure was all up to me. Usually, when those are the only two possible outcomes, just one of them is actually plausible. I’m not known for my great organizational skills. When planning our wedding, I made exactly zero of the logistical decisions. My now-wife Lola sent me an email for what day and time to show up, and that was the extent of my involvement. Even then, I wasn’t essential. She could have found a cardboard cutout of me or possibly just a better husband.
But wine day was my plan start to finish. That might seem odd since I don’t even drink wine. It’s too sweet. I stick to hard alcohol because I like my poison to taste like poison. The terrible flavor is the gatekeeper that stops me from having too much fun. While I don’t usually drink wine, I have had a good time around it. Two years ago, Lola and I went with our friends Winston and Virginia to a winery with a cave. Everything is more enjoyable when you do it underground. Dwarves have the right idea. After everyone else had several glasses of fermented grapes and I ate my body weight in meat and cheese (charcuterie boards are a challenge, not a meal), I drove our squad on a tour of rural Missouri. It was a blast. It helped that Missouri law says you can have one less open container than person in the car. We had three wine glasses and one sober driver playing chaperone and referee. I can’t disclose all that went on that day, but at one point, someone I may or may not be married to may or may not have insisted that we pull over to take prom-style photos next to a random creek. If nothing else, the day gave me leverage over Lola for the next time I got a little out of control. The key to a good marriage is stockpiling memories for future blackmail.
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I wanted to recreate the same experience closer to home, even if local anti-fun laws wouldn’t allow drinking in the passenger seat. Indiana is the state where parties go to die. I don’t typically associate grapes with the Midwest, but there are a lot of wineries around here. They’re the latest fad that, along with microbreweries, are taking over yuppie commerce. Gourmet cupcakes are so 2011. Wine snobs will say the explosive growth of wineries is because classy, sophisticated consumers enjoy the complex flavors, but really it’s because people want to day drink without being judged. There are no tasting rooms for different blends of non-alcoholic grape juice. Multiple studies have shown that professional sommeliers can’t tell the difference between the most expensive brands and the cheap stuff. Basically, you should drink whatever tastes good to you. Too bad I don’t always follow that advice.
Lola and I fell for the fanciness trap in Europe. We’d flown (and sailed) halfway around the world to reach one of the premier wine-growing regions of France, and you can bet we were going to have a glass or two while we were there. We took a bus from our ship to a winery in the foothills where the vintner and his family had been mashing grapes into good time juice since the 1400s. The area was beautiful, and the winery absolutely oozed history, sometimes literally. The wine cellar was a little gross, but I probably wouldn’t look the best either if I’d been around for 600 years. After riding nearly an hour to get there and taking an extensive tour, it was finally time to taste some wine. The vintner said, “Let’s get drunk,” and we all cheered. Then he brought out the samples. They were exactly that. All four together equaled maybe one regular glass of wine. And it tasted like—wait for it—wine. That’s it. There wasn’t anything special about it, other than the fact that we’d traveled a ridiculously long way and paid a bunch of money to drink it. The outing cost Lola and me $350, which worked out to $175 per glass. Technically, I paid for it with the bonus travel voucher the cruise line gave us when our first trip was canceled by covid, but I could have used that credit toward something else, so I still felt ripped off. We found wine that was just as good for eight euros a bottle in a German grocery store. The winery trip confirmed my opinion that wine is just wine, no matter where you go. I was convinced we could have more fun visiting wineries back home, which wouldn’t be hard. To beat France, all Indiana venues would have to do is let us drink glasses, plural. Recently, I put that theory to the test.
I was originally going to do the winery tour for Lola’s birthday or our anniversary, which are only a week apart. The ultimate belated birthday gift is being chained for the rest of your life to me. We were busy for those weekends, though, and also I was still recovering from an exploding appendix, so things got pushed back. I need to schedule my medical emergencies for more convenient times. Finally, last weekend, the tour happened. When planning it, I looked up all organized trips that went from winery to winery by party bus, all of which charged France-tier prices. The advantage was that you could drink on the road. Party buses are like ships in international waters. On board, you’re beyond the reach of the law. Still, I figured I could achieve the party bus experience while driving the group myself, sans the drinking en route. Each winery offered tastings that you could go to on your own, and they weren’t that expensive. Plus, we could bring our own food to eat between (and, in one case, at) them. Being an adult is a lot like being a toddler. The level of fun is directly tied to the availability of snacks. Besides, I didn’t need a party bus. I drive something almost as big.
I’ve long espoused the benefits of a minivan over every other kind of vehicle. In fact, I dedicated an entire chapter to it in my first book, Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. A minivan is versatile enough to be useful around both the undead and shambling, slightly buzzed adults. I invited five people to join us for our self-guided winery tour and then removed our car seats so they’d all fit. Anyone who has ever taken one out understands what a risky move that was. You never know what unsavory things you’ll find underneath. It’s more dangerous than opening a pharaoh's tomb. At least Ramesses II wasn’t going to curse you with half-eaten suckers and moldy goldfish crackers. We dusted out the worst of what we found and left the rest. Anyone with low enough standards to be our friends would understand. We left our oldest daughter, Betsy, in charge of her sisters at home and headed out. We were officially the coolest minivan on the road, which isn’t saying much. I pride myself on being the best of the worst.
The first winery was my least favorite. As the designated driver, I can’t judge the wine since I didn’t have any, but I can judge the seating. There wasn’t any, so the place got a failing grade from me. There was just enough space for us to stand crammed single file between the u-shaped bar and the wall. Worse, there was no place to play games. You probably saw this part coming. My alternative agenda to getting everyone together and driving them around was to force them to participate in my new favorite hobby. It seemed like a good fit. It’s easy enough to multitask and flip over some cards or roll a die while drinking. There was no way, however, to do that while jammed around the bar. The group had one flight of wine and then paid its bills so we could leave. At least that French winery had chairs. Maybe that’s why it was worth $350.
The next winery was better. It was way off the beaten path deep in the country. I almost missed it because it was literally just somebody’s house and the shed behind it. It looked like someone started growing grapes in their oversized yard and, eventually, had so much wine they had to sell it. I give the winery massive props for having both indoor and outdoor seating, but I’m going to deduct points for forcing us to choose the outdoor option. The indoor area smelled like sewage. Evidently, they were having problems with their septic tank, which detracted from the atmosphere just a tad. We took the wine flights outside to a picnic table and were actually able to play a game. The downside of outside is that it’s outside. We were eaten alive by bugs and also there was a rooster that was staring us down. As the only completely sober person, it would have been my job to fight it off. I definitely would have left the rest of the group to die and saved myself. Still, as bad as everything was, I could sit down while I complained, which earned the winery a passing grade from me. Also, Lola bought half a case of wine there, so it must have been good, unless she just wanted to hate drink it.
We didn’t even go into the third winery. My brother-in-law, Jerry, warned me that the last time he went there, it took him an hour to be served. If it was busy, he said we should just move on to the next one. When we drove by, winery three had more cars than an airport parking lot. I didn’t even slow down. In hindsight, winery three didn’t inconvenience me in any way, so maybe it should have been my favorite.
Then there was winery four. It was mostly empty, which was spectacular. The worst part of going out in public is the public. The lack of other customers left plenty of open seats and tables. Unfortunately, we couldn’t use them. For the flights, the bartender, who was also the owner, insisted on pouring each sample one at a time and then waiting for our group to finish before he’d give us the next one. The whole group had to wait at the bar—which was the part of the winery with no seats—while they made it through all four glasses. I think the owner was just lonely and wanted people to hang out at the bar with him. Both TVs were playing videos of whitewater rafting, which was evidently his passion. He was desperate for anyone to talk to him about it. Nobody did. Maybe we’re awful people, but that’s what you get if you hold us hostage at the bar. We don’t negotiate with terrorists. After everyone finished their flights, we ordered a few bottles, and we were finally able to retreat to a table with chairs to play some games. If the owner had let us start out like that, I would have declared it the greatest winery of all time. Too bad it was all just his convoluted scheme to build a social life. Opening a winery is definitely the most expensive way to make friends. It’s much cheaper to trick people into playing Catan with you instead.
The best stop of the day was the last one because it wasn’t a winery at all. We went back to our friends Peter and Lila’s house, where we ordered pizza and played games because there was no one to refuse to let us sit down until we talked about their favorite extreme sport. Best of all, I could finally drink because we didn’t have to drive home for several hours. If I were to organize a wine tour again, I’d turn it into a stationary event at someone’s house. Each guest could bring two bottles of wine, which would give us more kinds to try than we had in an entire afternoon of driving across Indiana. It would be cheaper, we could play games the whole time, and nothing would smell like sewage. My standards for a good time are pretty low.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.