Beautiful setting: Visitors were struck by the abundance of flags. Picture: KATY CHANCE
Beautiful setting: Visitors were struck by the abundance of flags. Picture: KATY CHANCE

During a visit to New York last year, I took a much-anticipated wine-tasting day trip, visiting three Long Island wineries.

On a glorious June morning, about 25 of us piled onto a bus and hurtled several hours north of Manhattan. Within a couple of hours, we were flashing past classic clapboard homes, just like those in the movies.

It was pure Americana, with narrow roads flanked by lush foliage and picture-perfect, painted wooden houses with manicured gardens and flags everywhere — on poles, above doors, draped from window boxes, attached to large SUVs in the driveways.

In the way of all relentless flag-waving the world over, at first it was quaint, then disquieting and ultimately menacing. There were even rows of little flags stuck into the grass near the kerb, for better lines of sight from passing vehicles, next to "Vote Trump!" signs.

In that smug libtard way I really am working on, I thought surely there couldn’t be any Trump supporters this close to fine wines. I was wrong on both counts: there were many who supported Trump and most of the wines were far from fine.

At our first winery — the prettiest of the day, which offered the only informative and professional tasting of the trip — it would transpire our tasting was managed, in an orderly and entertaining fashion, by an actual wine maker with a ZZ Top beard, cut-off T-shirt and tattoos down to his wrists. He was charming in a Hells Angels-Lite sort of way.

Wines were awful and expensive when converted to rands. Picture: KATY CHANCE
Wines were awful and expensive when converted to rands. Picture: KATY CHANCE

The wines were described with much promise: a
sauvignon blanc, our flyer said, offered flavours of grapefruit, lime and minerals; a chardonnay exhibited peach and pear aromas; a merlot would reveal notes of blackberries and black olives. The copywriter had done a sterling job.

Unfortunately, the wines were not aware of their written potential and failed miserably. The whites were fruitless and blah; the reds hot and tannic.

This being the US (and still Obama’s US), things were all terribly PC. One woman, attending her first tasting and drinking her first wines, asked if they actually added pears to the wine, as the wording suggested.

What followed was the longest, most earnest and preachy speech about it being a truly excellent question for there is no such thing as a stupid question in the wine world and about wine not being pretentious in any way and about everybody being entitled to
their own thoughts and feelings about a particular wine, as
well as about how and when to drink it.

The poor woman dropped her head quietly behind her companion’s shoulder and didn’t open her mouth again for the entire trip.

The next stop was one I was looking forward to, for it
was now the middle of the day and a "gourmet picnic" was on the itinerary, provided by the tour company.

We were herded from the bus to a lovely shaded outside area and sat down at bare, wire tables – not a gingham cloth in sight – while three cardboard boxes (that had once belonged to a supermarket) were plonked on another table.

There were, we were told loudly, two options: a sandwich with chicken in it or one with cheese and tomato in it. We were told to help ourselves and trundled dutifully past the three peeling boxes, like cowed schoolchildren, picking out plastic containers with what were clearly once frozen but were now dry sandwiches, and packets of tasteless but artisanal (we were promised) crisps.
The third box was filled with loose bananas.

Back at the table, we were served a series of wines in
order of the price list with the average bottle being between $30 and $40. At then more than R16 to the dollar it was easy not to be tempted to buy one, not only because they were expensive, but also because they were awful.

All of them, whites and reds, tasted of over-toasted oak, leaving a distinct taste of charred carbon. I was thus relieved to see that a bubbly was included in the line-up, but our server was not interested in giving details about it because he was busy pitching his one-man Broadway show.

He was fabulous and he knew it and we were expected to sit silently in his thrall.

There is always one irritating person in these groups who likes to keep such people in check and in this instance that person was me. When he alighted at our table to reward us with "champagne", I pointed out that he couldn’t call it that unless it was actual "champagne".

He glared furiously; could he really have a heckler within this captive audience? He flounced off, saying I could call it what I liked. I have my own opinions about what he was calling me.

On the way out of what was a large and beautiful winery, most of us needed to make a bathroom break.

There was one rank and overwhelmed bathroom. Not one bathroom for an assortment of genders – one bathroom for the entire property.

Our last stop was at a flagging, family-friendly winery, which means very loud and very busy. Live music and "lawn games" were on offer outside; inside it was a bun fight with young servers behind a long counter chucking glasses of wine at everyone who came within catching distance.

There was no attempt to explain anything about the wines, for only their prices were known. Abandoning my idea of actually learning something, I ordered a glass of bubbly for a reasonable $10 (R160). Then I asked for a replacement because it was stale and flat.

The second, fresh glass was as the first: the colour of an over-achieving urine sample with about three bubbles. Perhaps it was an alternative bubbly.

If nothing else, this trip taught me just how spoilt we are in
SA with our spectacular winelands, genuinely gourmet picnics, inexpensive wines and informed staff.

But, of course, not everything was bad, so I should confirm that the reds were generally better than the whites. But only because the whites were generally better than water.

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