Planning for a Napa/Noma Trip, Updated

For more than four decades, we would travel to California at least once a year to go wine tasting.  Occasionally we’d go to the Central Coast or a smaller, outlying sector of California’s Wine Country, which means most of the state.  But usually our destination was either Napa Valley or Sonoma County, sometimes both.  Then the pandemic came along, and our travels were interrupted for a few years.

For a long time, planning for a wine tasting trip was fairly simple: flight, car and hotel.  The rest was mostly a matter of serendipity.  We’d choose an AVA, drive there and stop wherever we wanted.   We would park, walk in, belly up to the bar and taste.  When we were finished, we’d get back into the car and head up the road to do it again.

For better or worse, more planning is required these days.

  • It still makes sense to limit a day’s tastings geographically. We want to be tasting, not driving from Calistoga to Napa and then back to St. Helena.  Why waste time behind the when we could be in a tasting room?  More important, when the purpose of the day’s activities is sipping alcohol, it’s really advisable to minimize driving as much as possible.
  • Appointments are necessary. Many wineries now have a “By Appointment Only” policy.  Smaller wineries – and some of the larger, snootier ones – have long been that way. That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa/Noma wineries are available only with a reservation.

A seated tasting at Black Stallion.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

  • Expect fewer but longer seated tastings. Many wineries, as a by-product of their appointment requirements, now only offer seated tastings.  There is no bar to belly up to anymore.  Therefore, we taste on their schedules rather than our own.   The ambiance is more guest than bar patron, which has plusses and minuses, but it is different.
  • Sharing is more difficult. Since they are seated tastings, two people can’t occupy one chair.  As a result, both will have a full tasting.  Sure, we can each sip only a little but the temptation to take a few more sips is quite apparent.
  • Lunch is more important than ever, but harder. If we are likely to drink a little more at each tasting, we need to get some food into us.  But fitting in a restaurant between winery visits is a challenge, especially in areas where restaurants are few and far between.
  • Packing a picnic may be the only choice. There are no restaurants and often not even delis in certain areas.  For example, there used to be the Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley, but there isn’t anything now.  And try finding a restaurant in the further extremes of Russian River.  Even with a packed lunch, there aren’t that many wineries with picnic tables in Sonoma County and hardly any at all in Napa Valley.  Dining in the car may be necessary but it’s unpleasant.

All of which is to say, Napa/Noma still has some of America’s best wineries available to visit.  They just take more preparation to enjoy them than it used to.

How to Order from Unfamiliar Wine Lists

When we go wine tasting, we are almost always tasting wines we’ve never tasted before.  Even if we’re at a familiar winery, we’re going to sample a new vintage.  Often, the tasting room will put some bottlings on their menu for the day that we’ve never heard of, much less tasted.  If we’re visiting a winery we’ve never been to before, especially when we travel abroad, we’re in the dark.

This is all great preparation for ordering wine off a restaurant’s list, where we know nothing (or almost nothing).  What to choose?  This is where our experience with wine tasting trips comes to our aid.  A few tips might help you, too.

  • You could ask your waiter. These days, your waiter may not be old enough to drink, much less to develop expertise in wine! The best you can hope for is that he or she can tell you what’s the most popular.  In fairness, the type of establishment that has inexperienced wait staff often has a less-than-inspiring wine list, sometimes consisting of two choices: red or white.

Photo courtesy of Sommeliers Choice Awards

  • Or a sommelier. At the other extreme, restaurants that do have quality wine lists may also have someone trained to help you choose, i.e., a sommelier.  But there are problems here as well.  The sommelier is an employee of the house and has an incentive to direct you to the more expensive items on the list.  A good one will ask you what types of wine you like and the characteristics you prefer, such as robustness, acidity or intensity.  And definitely what your price range is.  Even then, you’re going to be offered what he or she thinks meets your tastes, which may or may not work out.
  • Go with a wine that’s from a familiar region. If we’re dealing with wines from California, France or Italy, for example, we know enough to say “We don’t know these wines, but we know that a Bordeaux usually pleases us”.  But if we’re at a Hungarian or an Argentine restaurant, for instance, that’s not going to help.  And when we’re overseas, our best hope is to try our luck.
  • Choose on the basis of price. Think about your overall restaurant experience with wine.  How much do you usually pay for wine as a percentage of the overall meal.  A third?  A half? More?  Less?  Use that as your guide.

Or go at it the other way round.  How much do you want to spend on a bottle that night?  Probably less on a random Tuesday, more on a weekend and even more for a special occasion.  Let’s say you’re ready to spend $75.  Look for a number in the $65 to $85 range on the right side of the list.  If the restaurant is knowledgeable and honest, you’ll get a bottle that satisfies you.  This isn’t a perfect rule, but it has worked out pretty well for us.

How to Make Wine Tasting Discoveries

Christopher Columbus wasn’t trying to discover America.  He was looking for China and stopped in Hispaniola, which of course had already been “discovered” by the people living there.  All the same it worked out pretty well (except for the natives).  If you want to make discoveries on a wine tasting trip, you can’t set out to find them; you have to let them happen and recognize them when you do.

Moshin Vineyards’ tasting room.

  • Be adventurous – Take the side roads off the main drag, whether that be Sonoma County’s Route 101, Burgundy’s Route des Vins, or the D2 in Bordeaux. You don’t know what you’ll find there and in fact there may be no wineries at all.  But sometimes there’s a little château with a small production and a limited distribution that blows your mouth away.  As often as not, you’ll get to meet the owner, who doubles as the winemaker and whose daughter is the only one there who can speak English.  And you’ll be served in their kitchen.  You won’t forget an experience like that.
  • Be prepared to fail – Alas, some of those little unknown wineries are small and unfamiliar for a reason. This is especially true if you’re on a tasting trip through regions where the wines are just names to you.  If you’re on your own, for the first time in the South Africa’s Stellenbosch, the Barossa in Australia or California’s Santa Clara Valley, you’ll have no idea what’s to be found in the next winery down the road.  Maybe you’ll get lucky but there’s just as good a chance that what you’ll find is something you wouldn’t put on your table.  You have to take your chances.
  • Recognize a discovery when you make one – Most American tasting rooms have a variety of wines available to taste. (So do many overseas, but in regions such as Burgundy or Tuscany, they may make only one kind of wine.)  If you’ve never heard of the winery or the wines they make, your reactions may be summarized as “eh, meh, ugh, and wow”.  It’s important not to let the first three color your perceptions so you can tell that a wow is a WOW.

Iron Horse Vineyards’ “tasting room”.  Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

  • Make the most of what you find – The wines you try in an unknown winery may fall well below your standards but the overall experience may be a discovery in itself. There may be a beautiful landscape or a fine art collection or architecture that thrills you.  Contrarily, you may find superb wine being served in what is little more than a shed.  Iron Horse Vineyards fits into this latter category and is truly a discovery in itself.  The entire premise of Power Tasting is that the wine tasting experience is more important even than the wines by themselves.

The overall point is that you can’t and won’t make discoveries unless you are open to them.  Throw away your preconceptions.  Be ready to try something you’re unfamiliar with.  Trust your eyes and your taste buds.  You’ll reap rewards.

How to Go Wine Tasting on Long Island

The headline might seem a bit facetious.  You taste wine on Long Island just like anywhere else: lift glass, swirl, sniff and sip.  Sure, but there are wrinkles to wine tasting on the North Fork that are somewhat unique.  Before heading out, give some consideration to these issues.

Workers tending the vines at Paumanok Vineyards, where visitors will soon sip wine.

  • Try to visit on weekdays. Of course, wineries are busier on the weekends everywhere.  But many of them on Long Island work on the presumption that they can make more money from partiers than serious wine drinkers.  You can expect to find rock bands, food trucks and a lot of louder than usual people Friday through Sunday.  Early in the week, even the most popular wineries are fairly empty, giving more time for individual attention.
  • Take off early. If like us you are starting from New York City, you can expect delays on the Long Island Expressway, mostly in leaving Manhattan and putting Queens behind you.  Generally, but not always, it’s smoother sailing once you get into Nassau County.  (The North Fork is at the extreme east of Suffolk County.)
  • Consider making appointments. They are certainly a necessity on weekends, and although we haven’t been turned away on weekdays, we’ve been told by some tasting room managers that they have done so if they find they can’t accommodate walk-ins.  Of course, this means you need to know where you are going before you set off, which eliminates serendipity, the delightful discoveries that make wine tasting trips so rewarding.
  • Think about lunch. Almost no wineries allow picnicking any longer.  Many sell food, but it’s more snacks than meals.  There are places to stop for lunch, mostly along Route 25, but only a few where you can dine, rather than grab a quick bite.
  • Plan on staying over. We used to take day trips, but then we realized that we were spending four to six hours on the road for four or five hours of tasting.  Plus there was the danger of driving back having consumed alcohol.  There are many bed-and-breakfasts and some hotels, mostly in Riverhead and Greenport.  They can run a bit expensive but an overnight stay really adds to the trip.  And it gives you a chance to sample the local cuisine, which leans towards seafood.
  • Try places you don’t know. If you’ve never been to the North Fork or last were there many years ago, then everything will be new to you.  Today, new owners are buying up familiar wineries and changing their names (and, to an extent, the quality of the wines.)  For example, Shinn is now Rose Hill; Laurel Lake is now Ev&Em.  Even more so, some people have invested serious money in new wineries.  These are often the best places to stop.
  • Now, as before, the North Fork offers glimpses of small-town America. You’ll find that spirit in Greenport and Southold.  You’ll notice the plethora of churches of every denomination.  They are indicative of the roots of many of these towns going back centuries to America’s earliest European settlers.  And the names of many of the the towns – Cutchogue, Mattituck, Peconic, Paumanok – evidence the influence of the First Nations.

Know Your Vineyards

Wines come from and are known by certain regions.  They are AVAs in the United States, AOCs in France, DOCGs in Italy, etc.  In each one of those regions, there are many vineyards, some clearly better than others.  Knowing which ones are the best can lead to greater pleasure when you go wine tasting.  That sounds simple, but it gets more confusing depending on which sector of Wine Country you are visiting and how they allocate the land.

Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, California.  Photo courtesy of biennacidoestate.com.

  • In Bordeaux, it’s easy. The rules there are that all the grapes in a wine identified with a specific chateau or domain must be grown on its property.  If you see a wine simply called a Bordeaux on the label, it can be from anywhere in the region.
  • In Burgundy, it’s difficult. In many cases, growers don’t own vineyards, they own parcels or even individual rows of grapes, within identified vineyards.  And those may be villages, premier cru or grand cru depending on the terroirs of each.  So wines made from grapes grown in certain well-known vineyards such as Chambertin or Clos de Vougeot are the ones you should look for.
  • In California, things can get a little tricky, too. Many wineries boast of their “Estate” or “Estate Grown” wines.  That means that the grapes for those wines came from the producer’s own property, were cultivated by its own staff and were vinified on the premises as well.  It doesn’t mean that the grapes are necessarily the ones you can see out the tasting room window.  They can come from anywhere in the AVA that’s indicated on the bottle.
  • But not all wines are “Estate”. Many wineries make wine but don’t do the farming themselves.  (And many wineries that do have Estate wines also make wine from purchased grapes.)  When you are sampling a wine that isn’t Estate, it’s fair to ask which vineyards the grapes come from.  There are some so highly regarded that the name of the vineyard alone is enough to make a taste desirable.
  • For example, in Napa Valley, Beckstoffer is the acknowledged leader. And within Beckstoffer’s properties there’s the To Kalon, made justly famous by Robert Mondavi.  Morisoli in the Rutherford Bench is also well reputed, as is Stagecoach high up on the mountains to Napa Valley’s east.
  • To confuse matters further, some growers sell most of their grapes and also make their own wines. So, for example, Truchard and Baciagalupi are major sources for many wineries. The former’s wide variety of grapes, especially Chardonnay, can be found in many wines around Napa.  Baciagalupi in Russian River grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for many other wineries.
  • Further south, look for any wine made from grapes from the Bien Nacido vineyard. In the Central Coast, many wineries boast their wines from that vineyard, with Au Bon Climat claiming the largest share.
  • And in the Santa Barbara area, Sanford and Fiddlestix vineyards have great reputations. Sanford also makes wines under their own name, while Etude (among others) makes a Fiddlestix Pinot Noir.

Decanting Wine: How, When and If

There is only one reason we know that you MUST decant a bottle of wine.  If the cork breaks as you open a bottle and you can’t get it out, the only option is to push it in.  This makes decanting necessary.

After that, there are several reasons why you might WANT to decant your wine:

  • A decanter of wine on the table is attractive and adds to the pleasure of a meal.
  • The wine is too young and needs extensive aeration.
  • The wine is quite old and needs a little aeration.
  • The wine is quite old and probably has a lot of sediment that you don’t want to swallow.

Photo courtesy of The Manual.

Some restaurants decant wine, perhaps in an effort to justify overcharging.  Some people decant wine because they think they look cool, even if it makes them look cork-dorky.  And then there are the occasions when Aunt Gertrude is coming over for dinner and she gave you the decanter.

Wineries generally don’t decant their wines, although they should.  They mostly serve younger releases that might benefit from some extra air.

If you are going to decant a bottle, here are some tips.

  • Don’t decant too early or too late. A younger wine, and even one well within its drinking age, can be decanted hours earlier than you plan to serve it.  This is not a requirement but it does get the maximum benefit of airing out the wine.  But in our opinion,  if you’re serving a very old wine, decant it just before serving, to let out some of the accumulated gasses in the bottle without losing flavors.
  • Simple decanters work just as well as fancy ones. The objective is to expose the wine to air and to leave the sediment in the bottle.  The ones that are examples of the glass-blowers’ art may be very pretty but not so easy to pour from.  A simple carafe can do the job.
  • Don’t decant too fast, but don’t make a big production of it, either. As the wine passes from bottle to decanter, it all meets air.  If you pour too quickly, you’ll lose some of this benefit and are more likely to get some sediment into the decanter.  Restaurant sommeliers and dedicated snobs will pour the wine very, very slowly, in front of a candle.  That way they can see the first little bits of sediment and stop pouring.  All very dramatic, to be sure, but the same thing can be accomplished in front of a well-lit white or light colored wall or even a piece of paper.  Yes, pour slowly, but be reasonable about it.
  • Consider double decanting. If you’re serving a bottle you’ve saved for a special occasion, you might actually want to see that well-anticipated bottle on the table.  So if you think the wine would benefit from decanting, do so.  Then pour the sediment out of the bottle, lightly rinse with a bit of wine and pour the wine back into the bottle.  You’ll maximize the aeration as you pour twice and you still get to see that pretty label.

How to Enjoy Tasting Wine in Saint-Chinian

Of course, tasting wine in Saint-Chinian is just like tasting wine everywhere.  Swirl, smell, sip and smile.  But there is a difference in approach and attitude.  This is a small region in the greater scheme of French wine.  It’s not Burgundy or Bordeaux and doesn’t pretend to be.  But Saint-Chinian makes some rather fine wines in a low-key atmosphere, with enough history to be of interest just because of its longevity.

It pays to get in the right frame of mind to appreciate what you’re tasting, without either over- or under-estimating what can be done with the grapes at hand.  And these principles can be applied around the world in regions with small producers and limited production.

  • Expect good wine and you’ll be rewarded. It makes no sense to visit a tiny tasting room of a vineyard you’ve never heard of and expect to find a new Latour.  But you can find wines that have evolved over centuries into an expression of the terroir in a region that has only recently come close to its full potential.  Contemporary Saint-Chinian wineries are clean, well-run and often organic (or naturel as they call it).  You may not find great wines in Saint-Chinian but you can taste many very good ones.
  • Consider the prices. What you get for what you pay in Saint-Chinian will astound the average American wine lover.  Take a sip of a Rhône-style wine, for example, and ask yourself what it would equate to in California.  Only then ask what you’d pay right there.  You very well might be given a price under 10 Euros or eleven US dollars.  As they say in the car commercials, don’t try this at home!
  • Look for what makes the wines of Saint-Chinian unique. One factor is the contrast of wines from stony schist soil and those from clay or limestone.  It is amazing to realize how different the wines from those soils can be.   Considering that they may come from vineyards only a few miles apart is an eye-opener to the influence of terroir on wine.  Then look for that unique tang of garrigue, the herbal brush that grows everywhere in the region, particularly the hillsides.
  • Admire how far Saint-Chinian wines have come. In the past, you might have tried wine from this AOC – or all of the Languedoc for that matter – and found them rough, acidic and maybe just a little off.  The local winemakers have realized in this century that there is real value, to themselves and their customers, in biodynamic techniques and sound sanitation.  If you can remember the old days, you’ll appreciate the results.
  • Think small. There are no grand houses in Saint-Chinian, even though every winery is Château This and Domaine That.  They don’t need to reach a mass audience and they don’t try.  So just as each wine tells the tale of the appellation, so they each say something about the men and women who tend the fields, nurture the grapes and make the wine.  That they do so much so well is a testament to what winemaking on a small scale can be.

 

 

How to NOT Buy Wine

One way to think about a winery’s tasting room is that it is a sales showroom.  In the same way that you buy stereo equipment, jewelry or other luxury goods, at a winery they show you many things you can buy, let you try out a few and then, if you buy, get one out of stock.  Let’s face it, wine tasting is temptation.

Photo courtesy of SevenFifty Daily.

Just as there are many reasons to buy a specific wine, there are many reasons not to.  Most obviously, if you don’t like the way a wine tastes, the temptation to buy is much less.  Even if you do, you might not like it as much as others in the same price range.  Or maybe you like it a lot but you can’t afford a bottle at the price quoted.

There is a subtle pressure to buy something.  A nice person has been pouring you wines to taste and chatting pleasantly with you.  It’s human nature to want to reciprocate.  So when the server says, “Would you like to take some wine home with you?”, you may feel like you ought to say “yes”.  (Note that the word “buy” was never came into the conversation.)

  • You have no obligation to buy anything. That’s true in a jewelry store as well, but at least the jeweler doesn’t charge you for the privilege of trying on a ring.  In the old days, when tastings were free, there might have been a bit (only a bit) of a moral imperative.  Remember, you paid for your tasting so you don’t have to buy anything else.
  • Wines at a winery are rarely bargains. In many cases, you’ll find that the same wine sold in the tasting room can be bought back home for substantially less.  There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out to the server.  However, there are some wines that are only available at the winery.  In those cases, you have to decide if the quality difference compared with the wine in the store near you is worth the price.  It might even be instructive to ask the server what differentiates the winery-only selection from their more easily found wine. If you don’t get good answers, don’t buy.
  • You have to take it home with you. If you live near the winery, that’s not a problem.  But if you’ve taken a plane to get to that part of Wine Country, you’re either going to have to put the bottle in your luggage or ship it.  Even if you decide to do one of those things, there are limits.  US Customs only allows you to bring back two bottles per person from overseas.  Even domestic shipping cost can be a significant deterrent as well.
  • Try to strengthen your sales resistance. Remember, you’ve been drinking.  Maybe you’re on vacation too.  Your ability to say “no” is not at its peak.  So if you feel yourself about to say “yes”, turn to the person you came with and ask, “What do you think?”  That can be a pre-arranged signal to turn thumbs-down.  Or if you both are in favor, this may be the time to buy.

 

 

Read the Label

Often when we are in a winery’s tasting room, we ask the servers to show us the bottle.  Of course, it’s not the bottle we want to see; they’re all pretty much the same.  (Actually, that’s not true.  There are Bordeaux bottles with round shoulders and Burgundy bottles with sloping ones.)  What we really want to see is the label, or actually two labels: one on the front of the bottle and one on the back.

The servers usually look at us quizzically.  “Why?” they seem to be asking, but they do anyway?

So here’s the answer to their question and some advice on how you can take advantage of the labels as well.

  • The look of the label tells you something about the wine. Great wines don’t need silly labels.  A classic label gives us an idea of the winery’s owners’ approach to making wine.  A picture of the château or some great art are fine, but a lot of bright colors or unusual type scripts generally indicate that they’re more interested in catching your eye in a shop than letting the wine’s reputation speak for itself.

  • You can ignore a lot that’s on the label. It contains some warnings that you’re not interested in, such as the fact that the wine contains nitrates (they all do) and that you shouldn’t drink and drive (you already know that).  You’ll learn the winery’s address, amount of wine in the bottle and the URL of their web site.  None of this is very important to you but the government insists on it.

  • Look for the interesting information. The label should tell you the name of the winery.  On top of telling you the kind of wine (Pinot, Cabernet, etc.), it might tell you the name of the wine, such as the “Private Reserve” or “My Zin”.  If they care enough to name their wines, it might indicate that this wine is intended to be rather special.  Even more so, some better wines come from single vineyards and they name that location.  By itself, all this data may not mean much, but put together these are all indicators that the contents of the bottle may be something special.  And it it’s not there, that tells you something, too.  (Maybe that’s not the winery’s best wine).
  • Check one number in particular. Perhaps most important information on the label is the amount of alcohol in the wine.  If you’re driving from winery to winery to taste their products, this will help you calibrate your consumption.  For a long time, 12.5% or 13% was the norm.  Now anything less than 14% is considered light.  Moreover, the alcohol level tells you a lot about wine itself.  While there are some exceptions, any wine that contains more than 14.5% is likely to be “hot”, tasting of alcohol rather than grapes.
  • Some labels tell a story. It may or may not be an interesting story.  Some tell the history of that particular wine.  Those on the wines from Ridge winery, for example, give a detailed explanation of the growing condition, the soil, and everything but the name and address of the person who picked the grapes.  And some just tell you whatever the Marketing department felt like saying.

So why do we ask to see the label when we’re wine tasting?  Because it makes us more informed about what we’re sipping and what we might be buying.

How to Say “I Don’t Like It”

One of Power Tasting’s founding principles is to help readers avoid being intimidated when they go wine tasting.  Most servers in most wineries try to be friendly and conversational, so they shouldn’t intimidate anyone.  Still many tasters, especially inexperienced ones, find it very difficult to express their opinions when they find a wine they are tasting to be not to their tastes.

Simply put, they don’t feel comfortable telling a server that they don’t care for a particular wine they have just been served.  We’ve been raised to say, “please” and “thank you” and to avoid saying anything negative when someone is being kind to you.  So in an effort to be kind, some people wind up unnecessarily swallowing beverages they don’t like.

Photo courtesy of Food and Wine.

Here are some tips for expressing yourselves firmly but politely.

  • Say nothing. Another of the maxims we’ve been brought up with is, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing”.  This is the easiest and least confrontational way of indicating you don’t like a wine.  That’s what the pour bucket is there for, after all.  That leaves you with an empty glass in front of you and lets the server know that you’re ready to move on.
  • There are a lot of terms that aren’t “no” but are recognized as, at best, faint praise.  “Oh, that’s an interesting wine” is one way to say it.  “Unusual”, “different” and even “trendy” can serve the purpose.  For the most part, servers won’t ask you why you feel that way, but if they do, you can always say, “Well, based on my experience…”.  Nobody can argue with that, even if you have next to no experience.
  • Be comparative, not absolute. You don’t need to be negative.  You can simply say, “I liked the other one better”.  And that may actually be the case.  If a particular winery has several Pinot Noirs, for example, you can ask the server to line several of the tastes up side-by-side.  That way you can talk about your favorite and avoid mentioning the one you couldn’t stand.  (Of course, this doesn’t work if you didn’t like any of them.)
  • Devise a code. Assuming you’re traveling with a companion, you can figure out some code words that express displeasure.  For example, “That wine has a hint of cinnamon”, which isn’t a frequently encountered taste.  You’ll both know that that word really means “Ugh”.  Of course, if you do taste cinnamon, you’re stuck in discussing it.
  • Think about why you don’t like it. Saying that a wine is more acid than you like, or too tannic, or too green isn’t saying the wine is bad.  It can also help the server point you towards a wine that is more to your taste.  Maybe there was a different blend of grapes in the 2018 than the 2019 and you’ll have the chance to compare and find you actually like one more than the other.

Or you can just ‘fess up and say, “Sorry, it’s not for me.”