I grew up in a small village on the west coast of Scotland, where everyone knew everyone. It was once known for its bonnet-making factories, and it’s always been made of hard-working, blue-collared, proud country people. For as long as I can remember, alcohol has always been a huge part of our food culture and heritage.
I remember the first time I tasted alcohol – I was with two other friends, and we were all around 10 years old. We climbed on top of the school roof to drink a 3-liter bottle of cider. Not the best idea, as getting back down wasn’t easy!
Back then, the choice of drinks were hooch or cheap, strong cider. This broke you in before you moved onto the Scottish teen’s most popular alcoholic drink, buckfast wine. But we aren’t wine connoisseurs by any means: It’s a fortified wine that’s sweet and caffeinated.
The Johnnie Walker distillery was in the town next to mine, and it provided a lot of work for the locals. This was one of my few choices, other than sneaking mum’s Bacardi and topping off the bottle with water. If they weren’t drinking Johnnie Walker, older crowds drank Tennent’s Lager.
That is all I knew for a long time, and it always reminds me of home. I have found it in the United States once, and I bought every single can – all 96 of them. I love it not only because it tastes great, but it’s in my blood.
When I was a teenager and able to go to the pubs and clubs, my eyes opened a little wider to my drink choices. Nights out would start at the local Wetherspoon, drinking cheap beer and taking shots of sugar-infused liquor before heading to a night club. Vodka with Red Bull was always a go-to, or a cheeky vimpto now and again.
Until I met my wife, I never really consumed alcohol in a social setting to enjoy the flavor – it was usually just to get smashed. I’d tried wine before, but it had been because my friends and I had stolen it from one of our parents and that’s all we could get our hands on. I still remember my first taste of a good quality wine: it was in a high-end restaurant on one of our date nights. I think that was when I realized that if I was going to enjoy wine in a social setting that it had to be a good one – no two-dollar wine. As for beer, the guys I drink with assume that coming from Scotland I know good beer – but Modelo is now my beer of choice.
I moved to Southern California seven years ago to pursue a new adventure with my wife, start a family and escape the rain. I noticed that the difference in the drinking culture between here and back home is huge. In the UK, people go to the pub to socialize. It’s a family setting: you can bring your kids and make a day of it. Some places you can go watch football and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and nobody will bat an eye.
When I go back to Scotland to visit family and friends, it doesn’t feel any different. We as adults have more disposable income and like to go to more of a higher end bar, but I still like my local and authentic ‘working man’s’ pubs.
I realized recently that I don’t know much about the alcohol I drink: where it’s made, how it’s made, and who makes it. I’m taking advantage of SoCal’s proximity to breweries and wineries, and I’ve put together an itinerary of places to visit.
To start my visits, a family friend offered me a tour of the vineyards at my local university. The friend is a student and farm manager – this guy lives and breathes farming. The vines we toured were of the Zinfandel variety, which are known for their high sugar content. Grapes that come from warmer areas like SoCal are known for a more peppery and blackberry flavor. The grapes from this vineyard are going to be combined with other varieties when they get to the winery to become a mixed barrel wine.
When you first see wine grapes, the first thing you notice is that they look much different than the normal table grapes you buy at the store. They are much smaller and look like blueberries. When ripe, they taste stronger and sweeter. They can grow in reasonably good soil, and surprisingly don’t take that much water usage – a good thing to know for my next home project!
In looking at the vines, I was curious about their bulblike bases. I was actually surprised that almost all grape vines used for wine are grafted. This happens regularly in California, and for numerous purposes: to fight disease, be more drought resistant, grow better in different soil conditions and perfect the wine flavor.
There is a lot of love put into the art, and there is a significant overhead cost. I’ve seen many beautiful vineyards while driving the Pacific Coast Highway, but you don’t appreciate them fully until walking through the paths themselves – looking down rows of vines and learning about the process.
Next up is a a trip to Temecula, “the heart of SoCal wine country.” I’ll be visiting a vineyard that’s mostly used for education purposes, but visitors are rewarded with wine. I’m excited to see how these tours go and how it changes my view: I may stick with the cheaper stuff, or I’ll turn into a wine aficionado.
A few days after my first vineyard visit, my friend let me know that they were harvesting grapes on a Saturday at 3 a.m., and I was welcome to join and observe. Cool fruit means better control over the fermentation process, as temperature affects sugar composition – so the harvesters pick late at night in the cold.
That time actually conflicts with a big football match for Glasgow Rangers, a Scottish team that’s basically my religion. I had to take a raincheck so that I could catch the game live a few hours later. I may not live there anymore, but nothing will ever be more important than home.