You’ve invited some people over for a meal. Or maybe you and your significant other are having a romantic supper at home. Or it’s just an average Tuesday dinner. The same question arises: What wine are you going to serve?
But wait. Power Tasting is about visiting wineries and trying their various wines. What does that have to do with dinner plans? We think the question of what to serve should be on your mind while you’re out wine tasting. It’s unlikely that if you buy some of the wine you’re tasting that you’ll ever have the same experience as at a winery. You’ll be at home and there will be no nice server pouring you a selection of wines and explaining what they’re all about. You’ll choose a bottle, maybe two, and that’s what you’ll drink.
Photo courtesy of V is for Vino.
So we suggest that when you are in Wine Country that you consider the scenarios in the first paragraph and the decision you’ll have to make.
- Think about how the wine you’re tasting matches up with the kind of food you like to cook and eat. If you’re a meat and potatoes sort of person, you’ll probably gravitate towards big, powerful reds. On the other hand, if you eat a lot of fish you’ll probably enjoy tasting white wines. This isn’t so much about wine pairing as it is about choosing the flights at a winery that will introduce you to the kinds of wine that you might serve at home.
- You don’t have to impress. We have a tendency, when we are in Wine Country, to taste the finest wines in the area. We have also wondered what the Mondavis and Rothschilds of the world drink with a burger and fries. Maybe they don’t eat burgers; worse luck for them. We do and we bet you do too. And we don’t drink our best wines when we’re pouring on the ketchup. So it’s fair to think of what you’d serve at a barbecue and choose wineries to visit that will fit those occasions as well as the steak dinner.
- Taste – and serve – what you like. If you’re a fan of, say, Beaujolais, and your guests include people who you believe are more wine-knowledgeable than you are, you don’t have to serve an expensive wine that you don’t know anything about. It’s your dinner in your home, so you can serve what you In all likelihood, the wine will match up pretty well with the food you will be serving. Then, when you’re in France go visit Beaujolais and learn just how wide a taste palate you can find there. And if you’re tasting elsewhere, ask which wines that they make are closest to Beaujolais.
- Restaurants are different. When you dine out, you don’t serve a wine; you choose one. There is a server and if you’re lucky there’s a sommelier who will explain the wine to you before you select it. More importantly, there will be different meals consumed by each person, so the selection will almost certainly be some sort of
One definition of value is “whatever someone is willing to pay”. By that token, the most valuable wines in Napa Valley are those that are unavailable for tasting by the average visitor to Napa Valley. These would include Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate or Schrader. By reputation, we’re sure that these are great wines, but we haven’t had the opportunity to taste them.
But another way to look at value is the ratio of quality to price. While some would have you believe that the more something costs, the better it is, this is not necessarily true and certainly not when it comes to wine tasting. In these days when a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley is bound to be costly, it is well to consider this definition of value as you choose which wineries to visit and what to try while you’re there.
Photo courtesy of What the Fab.
- Lesser known wineries can make very good wine. Sure, the big labels you read about in the wine columns of your newspaper make good wine (usually, but not always). But we have discovered that smaller, less renowned wineries often have a few wines that offer excellent quality. Our recent experience at Black Stallion falls into this category. In many instances, these better wines are only available at the winery or to their club members. If they are opening them at their tasting rooms, it is often to entice you to join their clubs. But you can enjoy them without joining.
- Some wineries that make mass production wines can also have a few that excel. Even though you may have bought some of their easily available wines and not cared much for them, it’s worth giving these wineries a chance when you’re in Wine Country, especially in Napa Valley. We have tried – and bought – some gems from Clos du Val and William Hill, for example, that really exceeded our expectations.
- With the prices for seated tastings running so high, it might make sense to include a few lower cost wineries when you’re in Napa Valley. Remember that the overall experience provides as much pleasure as the wines themselves. If you know of a tasting room or patio that has something extra to offer, such as art or an attractive setting, you may choose to just relax with a few tastes of wines that don’t leave you in awe, but are enjoyable in themselves. And you may find that there is one wine that is better than you anticipated. Our experience at Cosentino, with a tasting fee of “only” $30, falls into this category.
- Visit wineries that you already know make less expensive wines you know you like. Many people have a few go-to wines you buy just for an informal meal or an easy afternoon outside. Visit those wineries. You know in advance that they make at least one wine that suits your tastes. It may well be that they have others you haven’t had the occasion to try. It’s certainly worth taking a chance with them.
Less than four years ago, Power Tasting’s January 2020 issue contained an article entitled, “How to Enjoy Wine Tasting in Napa Valley without Spending a Fortune”. It makes rather odd reading today, since at least half the piece is no longer true. Of course, when that was published, we didn’t know that a deadly pandemic, which closed down California wine tasting for many months, was just ahead. On this side of those dreary times, as we have noted in a previous edition, wine tasting in America’s prime winemaking region has become so expensive that it prices out many potential visitors.
Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Tours and Transportation.
Today, there are no longer any free tastings; buying a bottle won’t result in waived fees; and the less expensive tasting flights offered are as costly as the pre-pandemic reserve tastings. Sharing a tasting glass is far more difficult when almost all tastings are seated and served. Nonetheless, there are some things wine lovers can do in Napa Valley to make the trip more affordable, if not cheap.
- Pass up the “big names”. It is not unusual to find tasting fees of $125 or more per person at the better known wineries. Lesser known wineries, such as Cosentino (reviewed in this edition) or Hagafen offer tastings at far lower prices. You should do some comparison shopping online before you leave home.
- Look for discoveries. The reason to visit the wineries you’re already familiar with is that you know what you will get. There is an alternative approach. If you are already experienced in going wine tasting, try to cast your mind back to when you first started coming to Napa Valley. You have the chance to discover wonderful wines that you didn’t bother with in the past. In many ways, we have found that we have gotten the most pleasure from enjoyable wines we had never heard of.
- Maybe splurge on one expensive tasting. Yes, the fees wineries charge are outrageous. But that’s what’s happening to many other forms of entertainment. Consider what you would pay for a Broadway show or a hockey match. With the way tastings are presented today, it is not unusual to spend more than an hour sipping wine. Add the time to walk around and look at the gift shop, and you can be at a winery for quite some time. It doesn’t make the price of tasting easier to take, but it is easier to understand.
- Choose wineries with interests other than the wine. In addition to tasting, you might find it fun to take in some interesting architecture and beautiful grounds. Chateau Montelena or Stags’ Leap might be good candidates. If you’re a shopaholic, Robert Mondavi and Darioush might be just the ticket. These won’t reduce your cost for sipping wine, but will expand tasting experience.
- And as we said, there are other great places for wine tasting. Napa is wonderful but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you prefer your tastings to be more rustic and laid back, you might find Sonoma County, Central Coast or Amador County more amenable. Take your dollars elsewhere and maybe the owners of those Napa palaces will lower their prices.
Essentially, wine tasting is all about what’s in the glass, plus the amenities and architecture of the wineries themselves. But it’s also about the factory that is often found right behind the tasting room. And it’s about the farms (we call them vineyards, of course) that produce the grapes that ultimately wind up in that glass.
Wineries offer tours of their industrial facilities and occasionally take visitors into the vineyards, but they do not emphasize the farming aspect of wine. In some part that’s because many wineries source their grapes so the farming is someone else’s job. But more so, it’s because there really isn’t anything to see, except perhaps at harvest time, when the best a visitor can do is stay out of the way of the workers.
Photo courtesy of Wine Australia
But when someone is visiting a winery, especially one with vines right outside the window, it’s a good idea to learn a bit – maybe only a bit – about its farming practices. Here are a few things to think about.
- What accommodations does the winery make for their specific micro-climate? We remember being at a renowned Bordeaux château and asking why their wines were so much more expensive (and better) than the one that adjoined their property. The answer was, “Do you see that little hill between the vineyards? We get the morning sun and they don’t.” A few questions about the siting and orientation of the vines can provide a lot of insight as to why one particular wine tastes the way it does.
- What is the winery doing about climate change and sustainability. Of course, everyone is concerned about the environment. Noticeably hotter summers and wetter winters are challenging winemakers to find year-to-year consistency in the wines they produce. Even more, these conditions are making it increasingly difficult for vineyard managers to grow the same amount of grapes in the same varietals with the same quality every year. As a visitor and wine lover, we think you’d like to know what they’re doing about it.
- Along the same lines, how do they use water? It seems that wine growing regions are experiencing either drought or floods. The way in which they use water – or protect themselves against it – are important factors in the quality of the wines you taste. Despite perennial panic about running out of water, California winemakers did pretty well during the drought years, but how long can this go on? Dry farming works in some climates, but others are virtual deserts and need irrigation. It’s worth asking how they do it.
- How do they deal with cool springs or excessively hot summers? You may know that the pruning and trellising practices of various vineyard managers differ. It’s interesting to find out how each winery’s approach leads to what winds up in the glass. An average server may not know, but if the winemaker or some farmhands are around, they can explain it. Even if it all seems a bit geeky for the average taster, it’s worthwhile to know what’s going on in the fields.
If you’ve decided to go wine tasting in Napa Valley, you’d better make advance reservations and be prepared for an experience lasting at least an hour. [This is largely true for Sonoma County as well, but let’s keep the focus on Napa Valley.] You’ll sit at a table and be served one wine after the other, usually four or five, often with something a little special added in, especially if you express an interest in a particular grape or a style. Just keep in mind that the server will bring you the next wine to taste whenever he is available and after serving other customers.
Photo courtesy of Spring Valley Vineyard.
The above is good advice but it’s not entirely true.
- Walk-ins are still available. It helps, we’ve found, if you appear a bit abashed, saying, “Gee, we don’t have a reservation, but do you think you can take us without one?” If the tasting room (or more likely, in good weather, the tasting patio) isn’t busy, they’ll take you. Groups of two will be taken, but larger than that and you’re less likely to be seated.
- The issue is labor shortages. We have been told that the reason for the “by appointment only” policies is that qualified tasting room staff are hard to find in the years after the end of the acute phase of the pandemic. If the schedule for the day is known in advance, they can staff appropriately. However, although most wineries won’t admit it, they often have staffed up for some walk-ins.
- It’s easier at the lesser-known wineries. The biggest labels, which have historically drawn the most visitors, are the most likely to enforce their reservation systems. You can tell by checking their web sites. If they state that they have a strict reservations-only policy, they probably mean it. Many of the wineries that aren’t household names are eager to please and attract new customers. And quite often we’ve found that there’s little or no sacrifice in the quality of the wines we have tasted by sticking with the smaller wineries.
- It’s also easier at the less busy times of day. You are more likely to find availability if you arrive just as the tasting rooms open their doors or an hour before they close them. The morning is better. The servers are more chipper and they’re not in such a rush to get home.
- And you have a better chance on weekdays. Naturally, wineries are busier on weekends, just as they were before the pandemic. But the reservation-only regimes have eliminated the wild party mob scenes of yesteryear, and that’s not bad at all.
- You may not get prime seating. If it’s a beautiful day and you want to sit on the veranda, you may find that you can only be accommodated inside. The wine tastes exactly the same and since you didn’t make an appointment, you have no right to complain.
- Maybe ask for all your wines to be poured at the same time. If you are a fan of the extended tasting experience that is the rule in Napa Valley today, by all means let them serve you one wine at a time and plan to sit there for more than an hour. But if you need a lunch break or have an appointment at another winery, you can save some time and reduce the irrelevant patter by having all four or five wines poured at once.
Sparkling wine is made almost everywhere that grapes are grown. We’ve had sparklers from France (Champagne, the Loire), Napa Valley, Sonoma County, South Africa, Australia, Long Island and Brazil (yes, Brazil). But only the sparkling wines of the Champagne region in northern France can be called Champagne. Real Champagne can only be made from three grapes, one of which is white (Chardonnay) and two reds (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Any sparkling wine that has pretentions of real Champagne must be made by the méthode champenoise, with still white wine double fermented in the bottle.
So when you’re looking to buy a bottle of bubbles, which one should you choose?
- Why are you buying it? If it’s to drink by the pool on a hot summer afternoon, there’s no sense spending big money for a great wine. There are many California sparkling wines that are affordable and quite good, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros being the best known. On the other hand, if the purchase is for a romantic dinner or a big celebration, go for the real stuff. It will cost you more; it’s hard these days to find any Champagne for less than $40, but that’s what romance and celebrations cost.
- Where are you? If you’re in Italy, drink Prosecco. In Spain, order the Cava. In Germany, it’s Sekt. In other words, do what the locals do. Note that in California and Long Island, the people there do drink imported Champagne as well as the local sparkling wines.
- How much do you want to spend? As mentioned, real Champagne doesn’t come cheap. But there are also many American sparklers that are fairly expensive. For example, a bottle of Domaine Carneros Le Rêve can set you back up to $125. And, without mentioning names, there are some wines with bubbles in them that are very cheap but aren’t even worth the ten bucks or less that you’ll pay for them. So be reasonable, set your price point and then buy accordingly.
- Have you tried them? Just because a wine comes from Champagne doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it. We like most that we’ve had, but there are some that just don’t tickle our palates as much as, say, a Sparkling Pointe from Long Island. Wine tasting rule #1 is know what you like: If there’s a sparkling wine you particularly like, by all means buy it. If your intent is to impress your friends with your wine expertise (never a very good idea), you’d better try it first. There are gems at relatively low prices and there are expensive Champagnes that, to our tastes, just aren’t worth the expense. Sometimes it’s a good idea to experiment, just to find out which is which.
- Do you remember what it’s called? That’s wine tasting rule #2. If, say, you were at a party and the host poured you a glass of something that knocked your socks off, ask what it is so you can buy it yourself. If you’re not good at remembering names, write it down. A name like Tribaut Schlosser doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it to the store clerk from memory alone. (By the way, it’s Tree-boe Shlahs-er.)
In the United States, we drink a lot of wine produced domestically, more from California than from the other states. For the most part the wines we drink are made from grapes brought over from France. The Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes are the most popular, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But the borders of Wine Country are far more extensive, even within Europe.
The Georgians age their wines in amphorae, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans did. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
In recent years, Americans have been eager to try wines from new places. Of course, Italy and Spain have always been a part of American wine drinking, but German Riesling and Austrian Grüner Veltliner have increasingly been appearing on wine lists and on store shelves. But what about Saperavi from Georgia in the Caucasus? Or Feteasca Neagra (or the “Dark Maiden”) from Romania? Hungarian Kékfrankos, anyone?
We recently had the opportunity to taste a lot of wines from countries where we didn’t know that wine was made, from grapes we never heard of, including those just mentioned. It forced us to think about how to deal with such unique tastings.
- Start with an open mind. Just because we hadn’t heard of these wines shouldn’t have made us presuppose anything about them. The producers of many of them were eager to inform us that wine had been produced in their country for thousands of years, so if it was good enough for the Romans, why not us, too? And indeed many had distinctive aromas and tastes that weren’t quite like anything we’d tasted before.
- Consider the history. Yes, there was wine in these parts of Wine Country a millennium ago, but what about recently? In a number of cases we were told that after World War II, their entire export market was to Russia, where wine drinkers prefer sweetness in their glasses. Accordingly, most native vines – not all – were pulled up and replaced with more familiar grapes that were left to over-ripen. Post Cold War, the local grapes were replanted, so that what is now available on the market is made from relatively young vines.
- Judge the wines on their own merits. Not everything was great; a few were awful; and most were interesting but not on a par, to our tastes, with better Californian and Western European wines. But so what? Okay, we’d never tasted Saperavi, so these were the best we ever had. And they were quite pleasant, something we’d like to try again with, say, stuffed peppers such as distant Romanian relatives once made for us.
- Quietly compare these grapes with what you know. We found a great deal of similarity of some of these wines with those from grapes we were more familiar with, especially Syrah. Syrah is a very adaptable grape, producing very different tastes depending on the terroir, so maybe that connection was only in our minds. Or was it some deep-seated ancestry? We certainly don’t know, but this reference did enable us to think of the kinds of food that each strange grape would go well with, i.e., the same ones we would choose to go with Syrah.
It happens so often. We’re at a winery and really loving the wine we’re tasting. We don’t have the space to take any home with us, so we ask, “Where can we buy this wine?” only to be told that it’s for sale in the winery only. Or for club members only. Or, overseas, that the production is so small that distributors don’t find it worthwhile to export it. The only thing we could do is to buy a case on the spot – if they’ll sell it to us – and have it shipped, which is ruinously expensive. So all we can do is leave, just a little disappointed.
If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some tips to soothe your disappointment.
- Have someone local pick up a few bottles for you. This isn’t always feasible, because you may not know anyone in some of the more remote corners of Wine Country. But in the instances when you do have a local friend, you might ask them to hold on to this special wine until your next trip or when they visit you. Of course, these had better be very reliable friends… or they may be overly tempted to try out the wine you leave with them.
- Consider the winery’s other wines. It’s too bad that you can’t find a top-of-the-line wine in your home town, but maybe you can find one of their other wines that are more available. If a winemaker is capable of something that knocked your socks off, they probably are as attentive to their lesser wines as they are conscientious with their best one. We have experienced this with Château des Estanilles in France. Their Raison d’Etre is one of our favorite wines from the Languedoc, but it’s produced so sparingly that they don’t ship it. But they have another they call Vallongue, and we drink it frequently when we’re in Canada. (For some reason, it’s not imported into the US.)
- Use your taste memory to record a great souvenir. There is an ocean of wine in this world and you’re not going to taste them all. A small percentage of them are truly great; in all likelihood you’re not going to have a chance to try all of them either. So when you do get a chance to sip something especially special, savor the moment. Smell it deeply. Roll it around in your mouth, while doing your best to remember every nuance of what you’re tasting. You may never pass this way again, so carpe diem.
- Tell your friends about the wine that got away. Sort of like fishermen do. The point is that you know you’ve had a great experience. If nothing else, you’ll encourage your friends to visit that winery so they can share your enthusiasm. Or maybe just make them a little jealous. But avoid being a wine snob; this wine was just a part of your vacation to them.
In an overly broad, but nonetheless true, pronouncement we can say that all wine comes from one of two places: hillsides and valleys. Some, but not many, of these hillsides are actually mountains, but most are just large hills that the locals call Mt. This and Mt. That. For example, there’s the famous Burgundies from Montrachet, which is Mount Rachet to anglophones and, quite frankly, is nothing more than a bump on the plain.
But sometimes, you may want to try some wines from mountain wineries. If you’re going wine tasting in Napa/Noma, Valpolicella or the Languedoc or the Northern Rhone you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy wines from both upper and lower altitudes.
The Chappellet vineyards in winter.
Visiting wineries in the valleys is a relatively simple affair. Get on the region’s main drag and drive along; you’ll find vineyards and wineries on either side of the road. Wine tasting in mountainous regions is a bit trickier. There is no main drag. Wineries are harder to find and are usually further apart. And the driving is considerably more difficult.
So if you plan to taste in the mountains, it’s a good idea to consider a few tips:
- Know where you’re going. Of course, this is good advice throughout life, but it has double resonance in mountain wine tasting. For one thing, we have found that GPS systems get a little lost up high where the “streets” are often little more than barely paved roads. Also, there are often few signs to let you know that you’re actually headed in the right direction.
- Plan your time. It takes time to drive up a mountain. And once you get where you’re going, it takes time to get back. Then, once you get to a winery up in the hills, you may find it’s the only one in the area, so your trip is for just one tasting. Now, that’s not all bad. We’ll take the drive anytime if the destination is Chappellet or Quintarelli, even if it takes all or most of the afternoon. We’re not sure, though that we’d make such a drive for a winery we’ve never heard of.
- Recognize the exceptions to the previous tip. There are mountains with a selection of wineries. Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain, for example, offers a pretty broad selection of wineries at which you may taste. Some of them, like Cain, Pride and Smith-Madrone are well worth a visit. The same may be said of France’s Côte Rôtie, where there is, in fact, a small but drivable main road, the D386, along which you’ll find many excellent wineries and even some places to eat.
- Speaking of which, bring your lunch. Noting the exception in the previous tip, there are unlikely to be many restaurants, cafés or even snack bars up in the mountains. Unlike in the valleys, there is no pass-through traffic and not that many people live there. So it’s not an economic proposition to open an eatery there. You may have to drive a while for something to eat. We were in the hills above Valpolicella and asked a winemaker where we might have lunch. He pointed across the valley to a spot on the horizon atop the next ridge. Down one mountain, ten miles in the valley and up another on we had a great meal.
Wine snobs are (in)famous for their adulation of certain vintages. “Ahh, the ’82 Bordeaux” one might croon, while another swoons over 1997 California Cabs. We plead guilty to some of that, because we often try to buy certain favorite wines in years that are reputed to be top-tier or a millésime, as the French say.
However, we have found that many people we know don’t really care about the year a wine was made. There is a certain logic to that way of thinking, especially for those who primarily drink wines from California. The relative equanimity of the climate there, especially compared with wines from areas with more variable weather, such as Burgundy, means that there is less variability in the quality of Californian wines, year over year.
Photo courtesy of Vine Pair.
That is not to say that there aren’t better and worse years in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, for example. 2011 was a stinker, while the following three years were among the best. For the most part, the distinction is only evident in the pricier premium wines. If all you want is something to go with a burger and fries in the backyard, buy a good label and don’t worry about which year it was made.
But if you are on a wine tasting trip, it may be interesting to try to evaluate vintages. Here are a few tips if you want to try.
- Develop a sensory memory. Yeah, sure, nothing to it. Some of the greatest experts have trouble with this, so don’t feel too bad if you can’t remember the aroma and taste of the wine you sipped an hour ago, much less days or weeks. Still, if you know in advance that you will be visiting a winery that you particularly like, open a bottle of that wine and really concentrate on the smell, mouth feel and taste. Maybe even write down your sensations and then really try to remember when you are tasting other vintages. Good luck.
- Taste a vertical. A vertical is a selection of the same wine from different years, often successive years. This is really the best way to evaluate the differences between years, but is somewhat difficult (or at least expensive) to accomplish. Many of the better wineries have older bottles, called library wines, available for tasting for a fee. Lining up a few glasses with the same wine from different years exposes much about the terroir and the winemaker’s art, and helps tasters to develop their knowledge of wine.
- Make your own vertical. You don’t have travel to a winery to have access to a vertical. If you belong to a wine club, you will probably receive the same wine from each year’s harvest. If you put down some of those wines, they’ll be available to open two or three from different years and compare them. It’s a good idea to do this with some friends, since you don’t want to finish two or three bottles yourself and you don’t want to lose some of your most treasured wines.
All of this is for academic or at least snobbish reasons. The point of wine tasting is not to parade your expertise but rather to enjoy what’s in the glass in front of you or if you don’t, to know why. You can look up the consensus opinions on the quality of a certain vintage in a certain locale and adjust your buying – and sipping – accordingly.