The old trope "beer-drinking NASCAR fans vs. Chardonnay-sipping highbrows" may have lost the lead it once enjoyed, but hasn't entirely run out of gas. Ours is a nation that reads politics into the provenance of condiments, and supposedly holds sacrosanct the union of cheap beer and high-performance motor sports. Yet a 2007 Nielson survey found that although NASCAR fans ranked last in household wine purchases, their spending was up 22 percent. Increasingly, the question may not be blue or red, but red or white.
When NASCAR comes to wine country, wine clearly has the home advantage. My preference in racing is for both cold beer and kiosks conveniently at hand where I can place a wager on a horse with a funny name. So when I set out to investigate the state of the grape at the Bennett Lane 200 (at the invitation of the winery's media relations partners), I brought along my father. While he does not closely follow NASCAR--and is a wine convert who has actually owned three French-built automobiles throughout the years--Dad is a longtime car-racing enthusiast who used to bring me to Sears Point (as the track was called when places were named for history and geography) decades ago when little but wind-swept, scrubby hills surrounded the track.
Things have changed--there's even a Pinot Noir vineyard growing amid all the buildings, tents and permanent bleachers set into terraces on the popular turns. From a vantage point on Turn 2 we leaned into the fence as Bennett Lane's own car, emblazoned with grapes, spun around the rubber-slicked curve. Founded in 2003 by ad exec Randy Lynch, the winery sponsors a race annually and hosts the wine garden where its wines are available by the glass.
An infamous Roman emperor who appreciated his vino as much as a good chariot race inspired the 2007 White Maximus ($28). Mostly Sauvignon Blanc with Chardonnay and Muscat, the wet honeysuckle aromas and tropical, papaya flavors were fine with a cool day or a hot day in the sun--both of which this Carneros location offered. A plume of heavy toast roared out of the 2005 Maximus ($35) "red feasting wine," and sweet black cherry and brambleberry zipped past moderate tannin, leaving me ready for the grill: this is your ribs, burger, roast head of boar wine. Dad certainly enjoyed it. After the first 20 laps, he had drained the glass; the next time I looked, he grasped an already half empty second.
Meanwhile, I also fell under the spell of the caterwauling stock cars as they passed time and again. Bennett Lane's #2 put in a good effort, but finished toward the rear of the pack with a crumpled hood, its grapes slightly crushed. As we trekked back to the car, I saw crumpled cans of beer littered about, and in the parking lot was a minor obstacle course, none of them wine bottles. Could be that those Chardonnay sippers were just more predictably concerned about the environment . . . or, in the transformation of "beer drinkers to wine drinkers one race at a time," as Lynch aspires to, there are a few laps to go.
Bennett Lane Winery, 3340 Hwy. 128, Calistoga. 707.942.6684. Infineon Raceway, 29355 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. www.infineonraceway.com.