Monday, July 7, 2008

Bocce, the perfect complement to wine tasting

Here's the down side of the Northern California Wine Country: There are just too many wineries. Without expending any real effort, a semi-dedicated wine enthusiast could in a day or two consume enough wine to drive even Bacchus into rehab. Especially if that enthusiast is morally opposed to spitting out a nice, well-rounded Chardonnay.

This means that if you want to come back from your weekend in the Wine Country not looking like you stepped from the pages of the National Enquirer, you've got to pace yourself. You've got to find something to do between tastings.

This is where bocce comes in.

The backstory: According to the United States Bocce Federation, back in the time of the Punic Wars, Roman soldiers played bocce to unwind between confrontations with the Carthaginians. (Their version of the game largely involved throwing big rocks at a smaller rock.) Two thousand years later, the modern adaptation of this rock-throwing turns out to be just as therapeutic between confrontations with Cabernets.

Why now? In the last few years, winery owners have caught up with the Romans. Every week, a truck arrives at yet another tasting room and dumps a load of limestone and crushed oyster shells into a newly constructed bocce court. I consider this an excellent trend (preferable to the one that persuaded wineries to sell yoga pants) as it combines two of my favorite things: 1. a sport that requires no actual skill, and 2. wine. Better yet for those of us who live in the Bay Area, the Sonoma town of Healdsburg, only about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, has five bocce courts, all within a 10-mile radius of the town center.

Spend your day: Here's how all five courts - and their accompanying vintages - stack up:

-- Seghesio Family Vineyards, just outside the town square. Playing bocce at Seghesio is like playing bocce in the backyard of your Italian uncle - if your uncle owned a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen and beehive-shaped wood-burning pizza oven. The grounds here aren't manicured. You'll even find a couple of over-watered lemon trees, a staple in the gardens of Italian uncles everywhere.

Seghesio's two courts are among the few in the area that fall within the official 76-feet-to-90-feet length (87.6 feet is exact tournament length). There's no view to speak of - the courts sit right up against a residential street - but the big shade trees and perfectly packed playing surface make for excellent bocce.

And Seghesio's wine makes for excellent tasting. Its Sangiovese, from the oldest plantings in North America, made me regret ever maligning the varietal as the Merlot of Italy. And its Pinot Grigio, sipped while spocking (the term for an underhand throw), will seriously improve your score.

-- At Davis Family, the court is shorter (about 60 feet), but the setting goes a long way toward making up for it. The single court at Davis Family is located next to the Russian River, near enough for passing kayakers to check out whether you've mastered the four-step run and throw. There's an unfussy warehouse tasting room, six picnic tables and a three-story wine goddess. This last is the winery's homage to recycling. Her skirt is made from an enormous steel wine vat trimmed with hubcaps, her left eye was once a wall clock, and her nose started life as a bundt cake pan.

Davis Family's signature wine is its Pinot, but I was knocked out by the Old Vine Zin Port. Completely different from most Ports I've tasted, which tend to be sweet and syrupy, this one was light and peppery. The perfect libation to celebrate a win.

-- The collection of buildings at 4791 Dry Creek Road, just north of downtown Healdsburg, is a treacherous place for anyone attempting to practice moderation. Five tasting rooms perch on this hill (Amphora, Family Wineries, Kokomo, Papapietro Perry and Peterson), a situation rendered even more perilous by the fact that one of them alone, Family, pours wine from six wineries.

While deciding where to taste here takes some mental energy, deciding where to play bocce doesn't. There's one court, a bit shorter than regulation, with a spectacular view of vineyards and cypress trees. Rather than the usual oyster-shell surface, this court is topped with fine pebbles, which if necessary makes a handy excuse for a less-than-stunning bocce performance.

-- Farther north in Geyserville, Pedroncelli claims to be owned by the oldest continuous winemaking family in the Dry Creek Valley. Its bocce court, at 20, is probably the oldest as well. It certainly has one of the prettiest settings, pressed into a trellised hillside covered with grapevines, rosemary bushes and olive trees.

Twenty years worth of bocce-playing feet have stamped down the Pedroncelli court into an uncommon hardness, which makes it fast. Put any force behind your throw and you'll wind up with a dead ball (one that's hit the backboard and is out of play). This can be embarrassing, especially when the courtside wrought-iron tables are filled with picnickers enjoying a glass of Pedroncelli's continuously produced wine and watching you fling bocce balls like the Bionic Woman.

Pedroncelli has some of the most reasonably priced wine of all three valleys. Downing a glass of its deliciously dry and spicy Zinfandel Rose ($10 a bottle) is an excellent way to put some drag on your ball.

-- Hands down, the bocce court at Armida Winery has the best view. Up a steep, winding driveway and away from the road, it's all vineyard-covered hills and cypress trees. As long as you don't turn around and catch sight of the very Californian geodesic dome-shaped tasting room, you'd swear you were playing bocce in Tuscany. Armida also has one of the best picnic areas, cantilevered into the hillside on a wooden deck and surrounded by giant oak trees.

The court at Armida, decorated with a snarling Venetian-style stone lion at either end, falls into regulation length. The winery supplies players with a printout of the rules of bocce, with one quirk. According to the Armida rules, the game is played to 16 points, not the 13 dictated by the U.S. Bocce Federation. Be warned: Unless you are bocce maven enough to score more than 1 or 2 points per round, a game played to 16 could conceivably last as long as the Punic Wars.

Armida also makes some of my favorite wines. Its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are always fabulous. And the Pinot Gris, followed by a lengthy game of bocce, can render you relaxed enough to face a whole hillside of Carthaginians.

Janis Cooke Newman