One thing we noticed while camping and tasting wine in Monterey County this summer was that we seemed to be the only people bringing wine to our campsites. All of our neighbors were bringing beer or children (or both), but not wine. It’s probably a reflection of the greater cultural divide between wine and beer. Most people, at least in the US, associate wine with wealth, and we tend to be wearing less fancy clothes than many of the people we cross paths with in the tasting rooms. Meanwhile, camping is an activity based partly on the decision to give up some of the comforts of a hotel room in order to spend $50-$100 less per night for a place to sleep. If you make decisions like this because you have to, then why spend $40 on a well-balanced Pinot Noir when the same amount of money can get you two cases of beer and a pleasantly drunken evening for you and your seven closest friends?
Part of our goal at Diagonal Wine is to suggest that wine can be rescued from the realm of status and snobbery and become the thoughtful pleasure of people who work for a living, and not just those we have to work for. As public school teachers, those nights at the bed-and-breakfasts that are commonplace in wine country quickly add up to something we can’t afford. If we want to make room in our vacation budget for actually tasting and buying wine, then camping is the perfect solution. Not only do we save money, but we get to spend time a little bit closer to the planet that produced our wine.
This is where living in California proves to be such a good idea! There are countless places in this state where fantastic burgeoning wine growing areas are just a short drive from places where you can pitch a tent for a small fee in the middle of some breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery. And then drink that wild and untamed Sauvignon Blanc, chilled to just the right temperature in your ice-filled cooler, while sitting by the campfire and looking up at the stars.
Of course, this course of actions requires a preliminary investment in the proper camping gear. We have a simple two-person tent, an air mattress, sleeping bags, a couple of collapsible chairs. That takes care of the sitting and sleeping you’ll need to do after a long day of wilderness hikes and/or wine tasting. We also highly recommend a sturdy kettle and a French press coffee maker for your morning caffeine fix. Screw the grill! Just put that kettle right on the burning coals so the water boils faster. The rest depends on your preferences.
We met a lovely German couple, travelling with two very young daughters, while camping in Arroyo Seco – just a couple of miles up the road from an out-of-the-way winery we visited after a recommendation from a wine merchant in Carmel. The baby, less than a year old, just learned her first word: “Hi!” They were amused that her first word was an English word. It makes sense, though, because they’ve been traveling in California for a month and a half. She’s probably been hearing her parents say “Hi” to numerous hotel clerks, campground hosts, grocery store employees and friendly passersby. She didn’t say “Hi” to us, but she’s got waving “Hi” down pat.
We learned a couple of things from this encounter with the German couple. First, if you want to meet German people, go camping in California! No, seriously. It felt like we were encountering more Europeans than Americans on our Monterey trip. Carol hypothesized that people in the US tend to have a more sedentary indoor lifestyle than Europeans, and therefore the latter tend to have more of an appreciation for things like camping and hiking. I think she’s right, but I also think fact that most European employers are required by law to give their workers at least a month of paid vacation time is part of it.
The second thing we learned is how easy and natural it is to strike up friendly conversations with complete strangers when you’re camping. The atmosphere is so much more relaxed than the big cities, where we tend to perceive strangers as the rude people who cut us off on the freeway or slow us down in the checkout line, or worse, as potential criminals who might do us harm. But I think there’s another reason. Everyone’s there on purpose and for the same fundamental reason – to increase our connection to nature. You already have something in common with the people you meet while camping.
Similarly, we almost always get enthusiastic responses from tasting room workers to our questions and tentative observations about the wines we’re sipping. Once they see our geeky fascination with wine, many want to geek out with us. This may ultimately be the strongest thread that connects the joys of camping and wine tasting for us. We find ourselves talking to strangers instead of ignoring or suspecting them. Not only can camping and wine drinking bring us closer to the Earth, they can bring us closer to our fellow Earthlings, too.