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Pairing Wine with Golf

Courtesy of The Phoenician The Phoenician

Photo: Courtesy of The Phoenician

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Several years later, on a scorching summer day, I was playing a casual round with some friends at Carlton Oaks Country Club in Santee, some twenty-five infernal miles inland from the ocean. The course has since been redesigned, but back then it was an unwatered, unmanicured goat track. I had recently taken up surfing and, because I was playing wretchedly, I just wanted to pack it in and head to the beach. Miserable, sunburned and sweating through my shirt, I arrived with my buddies at a 180-yard par three on the back—I forget which hole. Since I was probably fifteen over, I just wanted the damn round to be over. I got up, dropped the last ball I had onto the deck and, with no practice swing, bladed a three-iron. "Perfect," I thought sardonically: "Perfect!" I tomahawked my club down the fairway and announced to my derisively howling friends that I was out of there, I quit, basta, no more.

I retrieved my iron en route to the green, but my ball was nowhere to be found. Now I really had a reason to walk off, but as I was trudging off the back of the green in the direction of the clubhouse I heard a shout from one of my playing partners. "Your ball’s in the hole, Rex!" I thought he was kidding and continued walking. "You aced the hole, man!" he shouted more emphatically. I dropped my bag and strode back to the green, expecting a practical joke at my pitiful expense. But by the incredulous looks on their faces I could tell they weren’t kidding. I had made my first legitimate hole in one with one of the worst shots I had ever hit in my life.

What wine could I possibly pair with this memorable (and unmemorable) golf shot?Well, there are certain wines that smell tainted, almost turpentine-like when first opened. They need time to breathe, to open up, to blow off, and then they’re quite drinkable, even transcendent. But one’s first impression is often that they’re corked, or off, that something went wrong in the bottle. I’m thinking specifically of certain Barolos, Riojas and even Côte-Rôties, all of which have a kind of barnyard-y nose upon uncorking but then soften, usually with decanting. That’s it: A 1999 Bricco Rocche Barolo from Ceretto in Piedmont, whose nose-wrinkling first whiff of cowpat turns to black truffle and huckleberry perfection with a little patience.

Moving on. The year was 1995. I was a member of the La Purisima Men’s Club in Lompoc, California. We had a match at Sandpiper Golf Club, a great seaside layout just north of Santa Barbara, against its men’s club, one of the best in the area. I drove up from L.A. the day before and spent a fitful night in a noisy Motel 6. After a few hours of sheet-twisting sleep I showed up at Sandpiper nursing a coffee to try to jump-start my befogged brain. Then the starter announced the pairings: "On the thirteenth tee, Rex Pickett versus Chris Reed." It turned out that our number-one guy hadn’t made the bell and I had been bumped up to the top slot. Worse, that meant I was going to be up against Sandpiper’s club champion, albeit with three shots. Even more dismaying, I’d been suffering from the yips and, in an effort to avert embarrassment, I had splurged on a long putter—but had yet to hit a single practice putt with it.

Like a condemned man being led to the gallows, I trekked out to the par-five thirteenth. I somehow managed to hit the green in regulation and ram in a three-footer for par (and a halve), the long putter preventing my seriously twitching hands from jerking the ball into the ocean. "Hmm," I thought. I started to relax just a little. It was a beautiful morning and, what the hell, it wasn’t the U.S. Open; I didn’t do this for a living. The match ebbed and flowed, but by the eighth hole—the fourteenth of our match—I had used up my three shots and was one down. Respectable, I suppose, but now it promised to get ugly; I could feel it in my constricted throat.

The eighth at Sandpiper is a straightforward par four, and we both drove it in the fairway next to one another. Reed, with that silky swing of his, bunted a nine-iron in about eight feet below the hole. He smiled thinly at me as if to say, "Nice knowing you, Pickett." With an adrenaline rush born of too much caffeine and taut nerves, I hit a nine-iron that flew twenty-five feet above the hole. I picked up my bag, slung it over my shoulder and started walking forward. My ball, which I thought had come to a stop, started trickling ever so slowly backward. I kept walking; the ball picked up pace. The next thing I knew, it had disappeared into the hole. A cry went up from my La Purisima partner. We got to the green and I conceded the club champ his birdie. But he was so shaken he blocked his next drive into the trees and had to take an unplayable, and my routine par won the hole. He never recovered. I closed him out 2-and-1 and our team triumphed by one point.


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