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Wineries are reservoirs of romance

Warning: This column contains stories of irrepressible love, public nudity and other forms of wine-infused misbehaving.

If I haven't frightened you off, then you probably want details on the nudity first. Well, sure. It's almost Valentine's Day, and I'm filled with passion and, at this moment, South Stage Cellars 2010 Romeo & Juliet white-wine blend ($26), so here goes.

Part I, public nudity: Legend has it that a certain Ashland vintner has his ripe pinot noir grapes plucked by hand by topless, nubile women.

Being a journalist with a strong affection for the truth, I always have doubted this story because the vineyard — which will remain nameless but clearly identifiable by the clues I will now give you — is located near an Interstate 5 exit and off a busy road. Would women really frocklessly frolic in front of easily distracted drivers?

Out of courtesy to the venerable vintner, I asked him directly about this tale that has been passed among silver-haired appreciators of wine and women since the 1980s.

The man peered at me, then held up his index finger and uttered these breathless words: "They weren't topless at harvest."

He then inhaled and forever set the record straight. "They were topless later, when they were rolling up the bird netting."

I was shocked. Am I a prude? You bet. Like Oscar Wilde, I believe that if people were meant to be nude, they would have been born that way.

But upon further inquiry among tasting-room staffers, I found that escapades au naturel are almost ho-hum.

Granted, drinking wine anywhere can lead to nudity. The sensual aromas. The romantic notions.

There's a long history of a wanted lover being seduced over deep-red wine. Even the cupped curve of a wine glass is suggestive. And then there's the shape of the bottle. Is it getting hot in here?

The whole scene is ripe for pleasure. In a private setting, it's all good. But in public, buck nakedness makes this aging Catholic schoolgirl blush.

And yet, strip wine-tasting is happening. Consider this: An 83-year-old woman entered Naked Winery's tasting room in Hood River, flashed her American Association for Nude Recreation membership card (I can't image where she stashes it) and then started to peel off her clothes.

She quickly was stopped and told that "naked" is only a state of mind inside the tasting room when it comes to anything other than wine not spending time in an oak barrel.

Other tasting-room staffers who talked about nude spottings described patrons who are, for the most part, not practicing nudists but people who have dropped on a dare. Here are three examples I've uncovered:

Not a week goes by, say staffers at Dobbes Family Estate in Dundee, that someone doesn't flash the life-size cutout of the Wine By Joe cartoon character.

A lovey-dovey couple asked to explore the rose garden behind Trium Wines' tasting room in Talent. A short time later, owner Laura Lotspeich found the duo Paris Hiltoning it in the buff for each other's cellphones.

A trio of refined women — two brunettes and a redhead — make pilgrimages in the spring and summer to Cubanisimo Vineyards in Salem. There, they disrobe and have their photographs taken while coyly posing behind well-positioned vines.

One of the more modest of the gals confessed that she felt safe in the all-together because wine drinkers rarely venture out into vineyards. Perhaps that will change when the weather warms up or people read this column.

When asked about misbehaving patrons, Michael Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery in Jacksonville acted surprised. "We have really never seen anything improper or illegal happen in our tasting room," he said. "Nudity? Really? I feel a little left out." You and me, brother. You and me.

Part II, love and marriage: Some fairy-tale weddings come with unbelievable price tags. A Sonoma Valley winery charges $10,000 to use a patch of its grape-growing estate. It's $7,500 to get hitched under an arbor at a Napa vineyard. But in Oregon, couples can pay a lot less to tie the knot against a backdrop of grapevines alongside the Rogue and Umpqua rivers.

After all, winery owners say they are not in the wedding business, but they book special events to introduce new customers to their wines and to each other.

It makes sense, considering all kinds of relationships start near vineyards. Strangers talk about wine and become friends. Couples become engaged. And, occasionally, certain unidentified exhibitionists feel even more free and unencumbered.

Part III, your kind of romance. Call your favorite tasting room to find out what the staff has planned to celebrate Cupid's Day. One idea: Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass is hosting a four-course Valentine's Day winemaker dinner Feb. 14 in its Barrel Room. While there, try the 2009 Tempranillo ($36), deemed the best tempranillo from across the U.S. in this year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the best red wine at last summer's Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival competition.

TASTED: As a couple, acidic wine and fatty chocolate are destined to clash, but as with other strangely mismatched relationships, some pairings do work. Quady North 2008 Syrah 4,2-A ($25) and other reds with pepper notes wed well with white-pepper chocolates from Lillie Belle Farms of Central Point.

EVENT: Against the odds, hopelessly romantic wine-and-chocolate lovers root for a matchup, especially on Valentine's Day and March 1-3 when the Oregon Chocolate Festival opens its loving arms to Southern Oregon winemakers at Ashland Springs Hotel. Maybe by then, I will feel it's safe to open my eyes again.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com