Dry Creek General Store

Sonoma County has several rather distinct wine growing regions, each of which specializes in certain grapes that flourish in their respective terroirs.  There’s Russian River for Pinot Noir, Alexander Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon and Dry Creek for Zinfandel.  Every place grows Chardonnay.  For wine tasters, one of the problems with the broad spread of Sonoma County is that wherever you go to taste wine, you’re pretty far from a place to buy lunch.

Photo courtesy of The Press Democrat

In the Dry Creek sector, you really have only one choice: the Dry Creek General Store.  This emporium on Dry Creek Road comes complete with a lot of history.  It’s an attraction in itself, beyond the food.  It has been open since 1881, serving gold miners, bootleggers, travelers and locals for decades.  In its day, it has sold all sorts of provisions, as evidenced by an ancient photo on the store’s web site (http://www.drycreekgeneralstore1881.com) proudly stating that hardware and dry goods are for sale.

Today’s Dry Creek General Store is a combination delicatessen and gift shop.  The deli side of the store makes sandwiches from a wide variety of meats and cheeses  on artisanal breads, together with salads.  The other sells  cutesy things that nobody needs but that are pretty little gifts.  But it wasn’t always this way.  In recent memory, the meats were ham and roast beef, the breads commercial white and whole wheat.  The rest of the store wasn’t a gift shop.  They sold nails and pots and towels and, and, and – the stuff of a true rural general store.  Yuppie sandwiches and merchandise make the store more accessible to many travelers, at the expense of authenticity.

And then there’s the bar adjacent to the store.  As of this writing, it’s closed, because some patrons thought it was okay to take their drinks away with them, a violation of local licensing laws.  The owners are fighting to get their permit back and so the bar will surely be open soon.  Then you will be able to see a crazy collection of general store memorabilia hanging from the ceiling and you can down your beer while sitting on a horse saddle.  And you’ll be able to share that beer with a few locals who look like they stepped out of a time warp or from central casting.

Photo courtesy of Dry Creek General Store

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day when there’s a barbeque going in front of the store.  Depending on the day, you’ll be able to buy brisket or sausages or even crabs.  While there’s no documented evidence of such cookouts in the old days, it feels like a throwback to a communal past that may never have existed, but ought to have.

And that’s the reason to make sure you visit the Dry Creek General Store in your wine tasting travels.  It’s a real part of the past, now adapted to the needs of the present day.  The people of the area don’t need a general store when there’s a Walmart just down the highway.  In our times, there’s money to be made in wine tourism, so the store serves this generation of customers.  Come and feel a part of the past as you munch on a sandwich out on the porch.

Welcome to Power Tasting

November-December 2017 Edition – The Good Stuff

This issue concerns some of the better aspects of wine tasting: top wines, good deeds and good times.  There’s a little in France, a little in New York and more than a little in California.  As we keep saying, Wine Country is a big place.  So come with us to:

  • Rochioli Vineyards and Winery – a winery in Sonoma County whose wines have been served many times at the White House
  • Lucky Find – the wine experience that grew from finding a wallet in a cab
  • The Funk Zone – partying while you taste on a visit to Santa Barbara
  • Tasting the Greats – tips on getting the most out of a visit to the very best wineries

Articles from the October issue are also still available:

About Power Tasting

Power Tasting is a monthly e-magazine about the wine tasting experience, not about wine itself.  We offer suggestions to the traveler who wishes to visit wineries and taste good wine. We are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur. We want to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar and to be able to taste – not drink – as much as possible within the boundaries of safety and sanity.

Each issue has four sections:

  • Wine Tasting Tips – There is advice to those new to wine tasting and to seasoned tasters alike.  This section aims to give visitors to Wine Country, wherever in the world that may be, useful techniques to get the most out of their visits.
  • Wineries – Each issue has a review of the experience of visiting a particular winery.  Some may be in the wine making areas that wine lover most frequently travel to, like Napa Valley or Bordeaux.  And other issues feature wineries as far off the beaten track as we can go.
  • Experiences – In our travels, as with other wine tasting enthusiasts, we have had many experiences, some humorous, some inspiring and some best shared so that others might avoid them.  This section relates them to Power Tasting’s readers.
  • Places to Visit – Wine Country is a fabulous place.  It has vineyards and wineries, restaurants and galleries and it is in the country and in cities.  It is anywhere that wine is available for tasting.  Each month Power Tasting takes you to interesting places other than wineries,  offering suggestions for what else to do on a wine tasting trip.

Who We Are

A few years ago, Lucie Gauthier and Steve Ross (a married couple living in Manhattan) set out to write a book about wine tasting. We are avid lovers of wine from all over the world and have travelled widely to wine growing regions on four continents. However, we don’t feel qualified to offer advice or even public opinions about wine.

[Well, that’s not exactly true. Steve offers two rules: 1. Know what you like. 2. Remember what it’s called.]

As mentioned, comments about wine will be incidental. We’re focusing on the overall experience, including the service, knowledge of the personnel, crowd management, artwork, architecture and the overall ambience of the wineries we visit. We may even mention where to have a picnic or take a walk in the garden. And we may write about some restaurants, shops and other things to do while on a wine tasting trip.

We are pleased to share our enthusiasm for wine tasting and invite our readers to share theirs with us.

Editorial: Why Power Tasting Has No Bad Reviews

Each issue of Power Tasting contains a review of the tasting experience at a winery, often in California’s Wine Country but also of wineries we have visited elsewhere around the world.  The review never says, “We had a terrible time.  Don’t go there.”  That’s not because we have never visited a subpar winery.  Rather, it’s our view of service to our readers.  We enjoy suggesting places you might like to visit and take no pleasure in telling you what to avoid.

There are many so-called “magazines” available in Wine Country, that find everything to be wonderful.  Their articles are mostly written by vineyard public relations people and the magazines, if not on the take, are recompensed by advertising dollars.  This is absolutely not the case with Power Tasting.  We take no money or advice from anyone in our appraisals for the tasting experience.  In fact we pay to be members of the wine clubs at several of our favorite wineries.

If you read some of our commentary closely, you’ll see that there are some where the overall experience is commendable but we’re not crazy about the wine.  You may also see that we prefer simple wineries to elaborate Napa Palaces.  But we also recognize that tastes differ and that it would be better to let you discover the occasional winery you’re less than satisfied with, than try to keep you away from having your own wine tasting discoveries.

We always focus on the tasting experience you can have when you visit the wineries we write about, not the wines themselves. But sometimes when we make a wonderful discovery, it’s difficult not to write a little about it.

Tasting the Barrels

Some time ago, we took a class at the Joseph Phelps winery in St. Helena on the subject of cooperage, the making of wine barrels.  We learned that the source and treatment of the oak makes a distinct difference in the taste of the wines matured in them.  Then, on a visit to Paso Robles we got a graduate course.

The location was the Écluse winery (www.eclusewines.com), on a hill on the west side of town.  Écluse is the French word for the locks that accommodate slopes in canals, opening and closing to allow boats to pass at different levels.  The owners are Steve and Pam Lock, hence the name of the winery.  We had heard about their Rhone varietals and asked for an appointment to come visit.  Like many wineries in Paso Robles, Écluse is only open for the public on weekends.  As we were in the area Monday through Thursday, a special appointment was de rigeur (more French).

We pulled into a gravel lot in front of a barn-like structure and were greeted by Steve Lock himself.  Inside the barn were racks of barrels full of maturing wine and a small bar area with some boards stretched between a few barrels and wine bottles resting on them.  This was wine tasting like it used to be, Napa in the ‘70s!  We explained to Steve that our interest was in the Rhone grapes and he was happy to oblige us.  Then he explained that Écluse is as well known for its Cabernet Sauvignons as its Rhones.  Would we like to try some?

Steve Lock serving in the barrel room.  Photo courtesy of Yelp

We guess we must have given Steve an idea that we were really interested in wine because he then involved us in a fascinating experiment.  He had juice from the same vintage of his Cabernet Sauvignons aging in new French, American and Hungarian barrels.  The French barrels have the finest grain, imparting a mellow, oaky flavor.  The Americans have the widest grain, giving the wines a distinct top note.  The Hungarians are in-between and project a creaminess to the wines.  Steve took a wine thief and poured some of each, one at a time, into three different glasses.  We sipped each and had never understood the impact of the cooperage on the taste of wine as much as we did that day.

A wine thief in use.  Photo courtesy the Weekly Grape.

Then we got to play assistant winemaker.  Steve gave us each another glass and encouraged us to blend some of the wine that we still had from the three barrels.  We have no memory of what we made that day, but we are quite certain that it wasn’t as good as what came out of the bottle we received a few years later, since we joined the Écluse wine club that day.

Sanford Winery & Vineyards

Sanford Winery (http://www.sanfordwinery.com/) makes Burgundian wines – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – in Santa Barbara County’s famed Santa Rita Hills.  Sanford has a tasting room in the Santa Rita Hills that we haven’t visited and also one in the city of Santa Barbara, which we have.  Sanford is a Terlato property, the same as Chimney Rock in the Napa Valley.  That fact alone is evidence of high quality wines and knowledgeable servers.  Santa Barbara’s wine tasting scene is a bit schizophrenic, with a wild party atmosphere in the so-called Funk Zone downtown near the ocean and more refined tasting rooms uptown in or near the classy shopping district on State Street.  Needless to say, Sanford is uptown.

Some in-town tasting rooms are strictly commercial.  Others project a feeling of being in a nice club room.  Still others try to incorporate the atmosphere of the town they are in into the tasting room.  Sanford is a bar, a very classy bar to be sure, but all the same, a bar.  It has a polished wooden floor, some large and small tables and a bar with some high stools.  There’s no standing tastings at Sanford.

Photo courtesy of Winery Explorers (http://wineryexplorers.com/)

It’s in a shopping center.  Again, it’s an up-scale shopping center with restaurants and shops full of beautiful things, but it’s a shopping center and it affects the wine tasting experience at Sanford.  The wines, which are first-rate, become another expensive luxury item.  Okay, all wine is an expensive luxury, but it doesn’t need to feel that way.  So when you visit Sanford, and we hope you do, keep the door at your back.

Photo courtesy of Sanford Winery

What you will get when you go to Sanford is, in ascending order, a lesson in their wines, their Sanford & Benedict vineyard and winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.  All of this is accompanied by quite a broad range of wines for you to sample.  Some of the wines Sanford produces are breathtakingly expensive; in all likelihood you won’t get a chance to taste those.  But the ones that are available to taste give an excellent perspective of what the Santa Rita Hills is capable of and what American Pinot Noirs ought to be.

In some ways, the best part of tasting in Sanford’s Santa Barbara location is that you get to sip these wines without the necessity of an hour or more of driving to Lompoc, where Sanford is based.  In fact, that case could be made for tasting wines in the city of Santa Barbara rather than trying to take in all the wineries in the rather vast county of Santa Barbara.  Many other top-end wineries have realized that and have opened tasting rooms in-town.

The wine-tasting experience at Sanford Santa Barbara is a bit unusual but definitely worthwhile.  The same may be said of visiting Santa Barbara itself, to be addressed in a future Places to Visit article.

Welcome to Power Tasting

Welcome to the Power Tasting blog.

A few years ago, we – Lucie Gauthier and Steve Ross (a married couple living in Manhattan) – set out to write a book about wine tasting. We are avid lovers of wine from all over the world and have travelled widely to wine growing regions on four continents. However, we don’t feel qualified to offer advice or even public opinions about wine.

[Well, that’s not exactly true. Steve offers two rules: 1. Know what you like. 2. Remember what it’s called.]

Our objective was and still is to offer suggestions to the traveler who wishes to visit wineries and taste good wine. We are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur. We want to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar and to be able to taste – not drink – as much as possible within the boundaries of safety and sanity.

Writing the book, to be named Power Tasting, was interrupted by the damage done to our home by Hurricane Sandy and the year and a half of clean-up, restoration and renovation after the storm. That is all done and we haven’t finished the book. We have come to understand how difficult it is to do that while running a home and a business and generally enjoying life. We’re still at it and will publish as soon as we can, but have decided in the meantime to start this blog. Our book is going to focus on wine tasting in Napa Valley but the blog will cover the tasting experience everywhere we have been and will go in the future. And we’ll welcome input from anyone who is kind enough to read our blog.

As mentioned, comments about wine will be incidental. We’re focusing on the overall experience, including the service, knowledge of the personnel, crowd management, artwork, architecture and the overall ambience of the wineries we visit. We may even mention where to have a picnic or take a walk in the garden. And we may write about some restaurants, shops and other things to do while on a wine tasting trip.

We certainly won’t be posting every day but we will do so frequently and will check for comments as often as we can. So come take a very pleasant trip with us to some of the prettiest places we know: Wine Country.