My favorite part of the Wine Bloggers Conference (all two of them that I have been to so far), and the 2016 that was held in Lodi, California was no exception, is the “Oh So Secret, Mystery Dinner”. As always, we signed up for our evening with no real idea of where we were going to or what to expect other than that it would be some vineyard/winery and there would be good food. I’m telling you, they pull out all the stops for these things.
The day of the “Great Event” finally arrived, we were given the ‘secret name’ of our destinations, and off we went to find our covert transport. Part of the good ‘ole time on these things is the roundabout trip you end up taking. Swear to god, you’d think they were trying to shake the Feds.
After about twenty minutes of driving through the seemingly endless vineyards of Lodi, being seriously thankful for air conditioning and listening to the endless chatter of people who obviously had the destination on their minds, we made a turn onto a single lane dirt road. (This sort of thing always makes me glad I told the kids I loved them.) On one side of the bus was a grove of fruit trees (cherries, I think) and on the other? You got it, grapevines. It was then that the announcement was made that our destination was Montego Bay, with a short stop at Oak Ridge Vineyard for dinner. I am so happy.
Now, we had heard (and tasted) good things from Oak Ridge, so my evil companions and I were looking forward to checking it out in person AND scoring a bit of dinner. But the journey is only part of the trip, yes? Big bus/van, hot out and, do not forget the Dirt Road, right? Huge billowing clouds of dust (like from a good old Western), because let me tell you, August in Lodi is dry and smoking hot! How hot? REALLY hot.
So what happens next? The air-conditioned bus stops at the intersection of Cow Path and Dirt Track allowing the clouds of dust to roll on by. Open goes the door and our escort/possible kidnapper says we can get out and check out the vines and meet the people who do the “wine growin'”.
(Hot out, remember?) Muttering to myself, I’m looking out the window of the bus and glimpse a couple of Bedouins on their camels looking for water. The heat is starting to roll in and I say, ‘Hey everyone, let’s skip this part. Who’s gonna know? They’re grape vines and look exactly like the 10 million other grape vines we’ve seen. I’ll lie. You guys just follow my lead and say ‘yup’, now and then. Shut the door.’
(Ever get that look from people? The one that says, ‘What is wrong with you?’ I got 15 people’s worth.) So what do we do, us hungry bloggers of superior intelligence? Why, we get off the bus. Some days I just don’t know where I get the strength to go on, I swear.
Our leader heads off down Dirt Track Boulevard for about…. oh I don’t know, let’s call it 100 miles. In the heat haze mirage (hot out) I make out the image of someone walking in our direction who, it turns out is Chue Her, Winemaker and Production Manager in the vineyards. What to pick and when to pick it is his decision. Chue talks about his vines. Talks about his dirt. Talks about the terroir of the area in general and his dirt in particular. Really pretty interesting but I notice that as he talks, he is wandering AWAY from the bus. Not good.
About the time I think maybe I could take him, we get to a bend in the road where there is an old pickup truck that has the bed filled with a couple of dozen flowers and a tremendous display of sparkling wines, fruit, cheeses, and bread. AND, be still my heart, ice-cold water. Truly an oasis. (Chue, my hero, should be an action figure.) We chatted for about 20 minutes, nibbled on the goodies and drank the wine and water. I was amused to see my fellow bloggers trying to find shade next to the vines. I can be unkind, ‘Hot you say? Too much sun? Don’t even look at me.’
Enter the vineyard dog (one of them). He ambles on up giving the occasional half-hearted sniff, but mainly looking to score some crackers or imported ham (I’m his new hero). We share a nosh, drink some cold water, and he looks at all the goofs standing in the sun and proceeds to show us how it’s done in the vineyard. You just dig a shallow hole next to a vine and its sprinkler head, then lay down. Beautiful cool mud. You could hear the wheels turning in our heads. Good thing we all had on our good clothes.
Wonder of wonders, we get the word that dinner awaits. About five of us head back to the bus on the ‘Death March’ while the rest, overcome by the awe-inspiring grapevines and heat, wander off towards some signs of civilization on foot. I imagine that they looked like extras from The Walking Dead when they came wandering up that road.
We end up at the main buildings and residence of the Maggio family. Oak Ridge is, as I understood it, a group owner operation, but Rudy Maggio is the General Manager. What a beautiful setting. As we drove over the last sand dune and left the desert behind, it looked like a typical small farm homestead with the main house and a couple of outbuildings, yard full of trees and chickens. The eye-catching exception was the stone, in-ground pool (which the dog had found and was sitting in), and the tables set up under the trees.
Plank tables end to end were set for us and each place had a copy of the dinner menu titled ‘Harvest Celebration Dinner with the Maggio Family’ and what a celebration it turned into.
The 5-course dinner was personally prepared by Shelly Maggio and served by family members (barefoot in the grass, no less). Everything on the menu was done to a turn and matched with the fabulous wines of Oak Ridge. I’m telling you, wonderful doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Evening coming on and as they say, all good things come to an end. We headed back to the bus fat and happy expecting a sleepy ride back to the conference but, one more surprise. At each place around the table, there had been what I thought was a pillow to make your butt happy on the bench. Not so, mon Mon Chéri. The pillow was actually a folded blanket embroidered with ‘ORW, Oak Ridge Winery’ and was a keepsake to help us remember the evening.
The evening was absolutely the best time of the conference for me. I really can’t say enough good things about the food, our hosts and that feeling you get when people really enjoy having you around.
So. Oak Ridge Winery. An absolute gem for wine, and great conversation about life, the universe and everything. If you should ever find your way to Lodi, stop in and say hello. Let them know the Winers think of them often.