Too Many Tasting Rooms?

As reported elsewhere in this issue, there are 25 wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara.  If you live there or nearby, you can take it easy on a weekend afternoon, stop in one or two of them, have lunch, visit the sights and head home.  But for those of us for whom a visit to Santa Barbara is either a vacation or the extension of some other trip, we don’t have the luxury of trying lots of wineries over an extended period of time.  Whatever wineries we’re going to stop at, we’re going to have to visit over just a few days.

The bar of the tasting room at Happy Canyon Vineyard.

So many wineries, so little time.

Here are a few tips for optimizing your time, in Santa Barbara or any other in-town tasting destination.

  • Start with a winery you know.  At the very least, you’ll be assured of finding at least one spot where the wines are familiar to you and, we assume, that you like.  For example, we began our most recent excursion at Au Bon Climat, where we have been before and whose wines we often buy.  And then the big question: We asked our server where else she would recommend in the area.  Her tastes might not be the same as ours (they weren’t) but at least we weren’t picking places at random.
  • Leave some time for serendipity.  Now for the contrary advice.  If you are in a region where all or most of the wines are unknown to you, pick one and try it out.  So, for instance, we were at that point in the day when we’d ask ourselves, “One more or call it a day?”  Opting for the first alternative, we passed Longoria on State, which has more of a vibe of a night club than a tasting room.  We enjoyed it greatly and will publish a review in a future issue.
  • Too many is too much.  Just because there are ten tasting rooms within three blocks of each other doesn’t mean you have to try them all.  In fact, if you did try ten in a day you’d be a menace to your own health and to those around you.  For goodness sake, don’t get behind the wheel of a car.  Or jaywalk, for that matter.  Even if you’re walking from place to place, set a limit on how many tasting rooms you’ll enter and the stick to your intentions.
  • Enjoy the ambience as well as the wine.  Whether you’re relaxing in a well-appointed room, such as at Happy Canyon Vineyard, soaking up the sun on a terrace or partying in the Funk Zone, you don’t have to bolt as much wine as you can as fast as you’re able.  The whole premise of Power Tasting is that the experience of wine tasting can be as important as the wines themselves.
  • Take advantage of the rest of what the city or town has to offer.  Yes, you’re there for wine tasting, but have a nice lunch and see the sights.  And don’t soak up so much alcohol during the day that you haven’t got the room for a good bottle of a local wine with your dinner, if you’re staying over.

Solo Tasting

Tasting wine all by yourself isn’t that much fun.  There’s no one to exult with when you discover an unknown gem.  Or sneer at a loser.  Or just keep you company.  And wine tasting alone at home leads to all kinds of problems.  Still, there are times when you’re traveling alone and you’re in a place where vineyards are nearby.  In some cases, you may be in a place where you are already familiar with the wines, so passing up a tasting trip may be easy to accept.  But if you are in a distant, previously unvisited location you may feel that you simply must take advantage of the occasion.  So if you may be considering a solo wine tasting adventure, here are some things to consider.

Photo courtesy of Waiheke Island Tours

  • Try not to go alone.  On a business trip, there may be a client who would go with you.  Or a fellow conventioneer.  Or a relative you’ve been meaning to call anyway.  If you are organizing a meeting, you might add on a wine tasting day, for team-building purposes. Before you leave home, give some thought to who you might meet.  Only when you’ve exhausted all the other possibilities should you think of the logistics of tasting by yourself.
  • Take a tour.  We don’t often recommend wine tasting tours.  In general, they go to the wineries that are convenient, that allow large groups or are highly commercial.  Rarely will you encounter the top vineyards in the area you’re visiting.  But they know where they’re going and they do the driving.  If you have no particular knowledge of the region and its wines, everything you taste will be new to you anyway.  Tour companies rarely advertise where they stop, but if they do feature small groups (not a 50-passenger bus) and knowledgeable guides, they’re more likely to provide better quality.
  • Take a taxi.  You can ask a driver how much he would charge for an extended ride.  You probably want to have a map and choose a few wineries in advance, so the driver can know where you want to go.  In general, ask for a half-day price.  Even if you plan on being out for a day, it’s best to plan for a shorter trip and ask for more time than the reverse.  Either way, it can be expensive.  But getting behind the wheel yourself in an area unknown to you, with alcohol to be added, may not be any bargain.  You really don’t want to deal with foreign police or worse, be involved in an accident. 
  • Limit your consumption.  It’s best not to drink too much, no matter who’s driving.  Don’t embarrass yourself in front of a cabbie or a tour guide.  And if you decide to drive, prudence is a necessity.  So sip sparingly; don’t gulp.  Use the pour buckets.  Only ask to try wines you are more likely to enjoy rather than everything on the list.
  • Talk to the people you encounter.  It’s always more fun to share an experience, even if you’re sharing it with strangers.  Engage with the person serving you.  In most places, the servers speak at least some English, as is likely the case with the other passengers on the bus.  And if you want to get to where you want to go, make certain you can talk with the taxi driver.

Choosing Where to Go

Sometimes your destination for wine tasting is chosen for you.  If you have a business trip to San Francisco, you may want to add on a day or two of visiting wineries.  You’re most likely to decide to go to Napa Valley or Sonoma County, if only because they are the closest.  Similarly, if you are just looking for a pleasant day in the country – with wine of course – you’ll drive to the winemaking area nearest your home.  So, for example, we New Yorkers head out to Long Island’s North Fork.

But sometimes, your objective is to take a wine tasting trip, without a particular destination in mind.  How do you select the region of Wine Country to visit?

Tuscany in September.

  • Is wine tasting the only objective?  If it is, then you want to go to an area that has many vineyards open to the public, where the quality is well known and accommodations are easy to find.  Once again, NapaNoma suggests itself, but so does Bordeaux or Tuscany or the Rioja.  That’s different than a Paris vacation with a day out in Champagne or the Loire Valley.  If everyone in your party loves wine, the first option makes some sense.  But if you have teetotalers or teenagers with you, maybe you should only inflict wine on them for a day.
  • Would you prefer a new experience or would you like to re-visit favorite places?  We can never get too much of wineries in some of our favorite valleys, Napa and the Southern Rhône.  We go back as often as we can, given available time and budget.  But California’s Central Coast or the Northern Rhône, where we have not travelled to as frequently, also have their allure.  And we’ve not yet tasted wine in Switzerland’s Dôle or Austria’s Burgenland.  Maybe this upcoming trip is when someday becomes now.

Carneros, on the Napa County side.

  • What kind of wine would you like to try for several days in a row?  We appreciate a cold glass of Gewürztraminer on a hot summer day, but we’re not up for a week of it.  So while we have tasted wines in Alsace, it was only briefly.  At the other extreme, maybe the 16% alcoholic wines of Paso Robles are too much for you this time around.  Ah, yes, Pinot Noir would be perfect!  Now you only have to choose among Burgundy, Carneros, Los Olivos and Santa Barbara, to name a few possibilities.
  • When do you want to go?  Power Tasting has long recommended that you avoid the most popular destinations on weekends.  But some of the best wineries in certain regions are only open Thursdays through Sundays.  For instance, we have experienced this in Paso Robles and the Santa Rita Hills.  Time of year also matters.  If all you’re interested in is the wines, then there’s no problem making a trip in the depths of winter.  Many California wineries release their wines in February, so that might attract you.  But if you want to see the vines with dense coverage, you need to go in the summer.  And if you want to see the harvest, you have to be in Wine Country between August and October.  (Unless you want to go to the southern hemisphere, when February through April is the right time for you.)

Tasting to Buy

There are a lot of reasons to go wine tasting, ranging from a pleasant day in the country to serious connoisseurship.  In some instances, the reason may be (or at least include) the specific intent to buy a certain wine or type of wine.  Of course, we usually buy a few bottles from many of the wineries we visit on any given trip, but there are also times that we’ve been specifically looking to buy a particular varietal or a blend. 

Sometimes the objective is obvious: If we’re in Burgundy, we’re going to buy wines made from either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, because that’s what they make.  But for us Americans, we’re used to tasting at wineries where as many as a dozen types of wine are on offer.  If we are intent on filling a hole in our wine collection while we’re out tasting, we could just rely on the luck of the draw.  But we have found that following the tips we give below, we’ve been more successful in finding what we were looking for.

Photo courtesy of Kreglinger Wine Estates.

  • Be as specific as possible as to what you’re looking for.  If you start out thinking, “I’d like to buy some white wine”, don’t worry, you’ll find it everywhere.  That’s not the same as looking for a certain style.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chenin Blanc are all whites but with very different flavor profiles.  So before you leave home, consider what you like, what you’re likely to serve it with and how soon you intend to drink it.  If you trying to buy, say, a flowery white with lots of fruit and a hint of sweetness, then you can buy accordingly.
  • It’s like going to a wine shop, except it isn’t.  At the store, all you can do is look at bottles and ask the salesperson for advice.  At a winery or a formal tasting, you can try before you buy.  That’s a plus.  But you probably would never go to ten wine shops to buy ten bottles to try at home.  On a wine tasting trip, you are going to taste the type of wine you’re looking for, then another an hour later and two more the next day.  Are you enough of an expert taster that you can remember all of the ones you’ve tasted and choose the best?  And will you want to drive back to the winery you visited yesterday to buy the one you remember you liked best?
  • Improve your odds by choosing the right wineries to visit.  As noted, you’re likely to encounter many different grapes and styles, all at the same winery.  A little homework before you set off on your trip will guide you to the places where it’s more probable that you’ll find what you want.  If a particular winery has six single vineyard Zinfandels and, oh yes, a Chardonnay, you have less of a chance if it’s a white wine you’re intent on buying.  Yes, there are exceptions and you should take advantage of them if you encounter them, but don’t bet on it.  

Right Place, Wrong Grape

They grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.  They grow Tempranillo in the Rioja.  There’s Chardonnay in Burgundy and Malbec in Argentina.  But let’s keep it domestic.  Napa Valley has Cabernet Sauvignon; Pinot Noir is grown in the area around Santa Barbara; and Zinfandel is the hot grape in Dry Creek Valley.  There are reasons for these grapes in these locations, including terroir, history and farming techniques.

Pinot Noir from Paso Robles.  Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Daily News.

But there are some times in your wine tasting travels when you might encounter grapes growing in places where they aren’t expected.  For example, Pinot Noir usually grows best in a cool, moist climate.  But there are quite a few wines made from that grape that can be found in the hot, dry region around Paso Robles.  And in Champagne, famed for sparkling white wines, you can find Bouzy red wine.

So if in your travels you should come across wines made from grapes that shouldn’t be there, what should you do?

  • Does it make sense to try these wines? Well, yes, what do you have to lose?  More to the point, you may have a lot to gain.  Some vineyard managers may take advantage of microclimates on their properties to grow grapes that can take profit from those conditions.  So, for example, many of those Paso Robles Pinot Noirs are grown behind the Templeton Gap, which gets its cool, foggy breezes from the Pacific.  These wines are never going to be confused with Burgundies, but some of them do express their own terroir, so they’re worth tasting on their own merits.
  • Why look for the unexpected wines? That’s one of the reasons to go wine tasting in the first place.  If it weren’t for trying these out-of-the-way wines, you could skip wine tasting and stick with your local wine store.  In some cases, they may be the only chance you have to taste these kinds of wine at all in that region.  We recently wrote about the wines made from Croatian grapes at Grgich Hills.  We’ve been to a couple of wineries where we were told that they were the only ones growing Tannat in California.  And I can think of only one where we have tasted Peloursin.
  • Is it worth the trip to try these wines? Probably not.  But that’s not the point.  If you’re already tasting the grapes that an area is famous for, trying something unusual is just an addition to your experience, not the basic rationale for an excursion.  There are places in Wine Country where the growers plant every grape they can, in hopes that the casual buyer will seek a specific varietal.  For the most part, most of these wines are not very good, because of both an unfavorable climate and an unfamiliar farmer.  There’s a reason they don’t grow Zinfandel in Canada or Marechal Foch (look it up) in Temecula, California  Or, at least, they shouldn’t.
  • Are these wines worth buying? If you like them, then sure, go ahead.  And if you want to share something really unusual with your friends, these offer the chance to do so.  But make sure you explain what makes them unusual.  Don’t be a wine snob.



Return or Not

One of the pleasures of wine tasting trips is discovering new wineries and the wines they make.  At the same time, if there is a winery in the area that you are visiting that you know you love, it’s a pleasure to return and try their wines again.  If you’re travelling to a sector of Wine Country where you’ve never been before, this distinction is lost; every winery is new to you.  But if you’re already familiar with an area, say Napa Valley or Burgundy, you do have to make some decisions.

If you had an infinite amount of time, you wouldn’t have to choose.  But most of us are visiting Wine Country for a limited period for each trip.  So many wineries, so little time!

Photo courtesy of eto.

Here are a few tips for choosing whether to return to favorite wineries or not.

  • Set a theme for your wine tasting trip. If you want to seek out wineries you don’t know, then make reservations accordingly.  The same applies if you just want to go to places where you know you have enjoyed their wines in the past.  Another twist might be to focus on specific grapes, such as Chardonnays or Zinfandels.  If you do, you may choose to return to one or more wineries where you know their Cabernet Sauvignons, but not their Chards or Zins, in order to learn how they do with other grapes.
  • Consider the time commitment. In many locales, the days of bellying up to the bar are over.  If you want to sample a winery’s latest releases (even more so, their reserve and library wines) you will do so at a seated tasting.  These are often accompanied by a tour.  These take more time, usually an hour and a half.  Thus, the number of wineries – new finds and old friends – is limited.
  • New wineries, or new to you? There aren’t many new wineries opening in Bordeaux, but there are plenty in other regions.  For example, we have been tasting the wines of Long Island’s North Fork for more than 30 years.  These days, whenever we take a tasting trip there, we find numerous recently established wineries or old ones that have changed hands. And there are some wineries that have been there for quite a while, but we never got to them.  It’s easy to specialize in new experiences on Long Island.
  • Go back, you might fall in love again. That was the name of one of Power Tasting’s earliest articles, and the advice is worth reinforcing.  Maybe there was a winery where once you didn’t enjoy their wines.  It might prove worthwhile to give them another shot.  Maybe that last time the winery just had a bad year, or your server didn’t know what he was doing, or you were simply in the wrong frame of mind.  Particularly if the winery has a good reputation, it might be worth your while to give them a second chance.



“I Can’t Taste That”

The tasting notes for one of our favorite Pinot Noirs describe what’s in the bottle as:

“Subtle and nuanced, this wine unfolds with layers of perfumed red berries and sweet baking spice. Delicate hints of cinnamon, clove, and cedar, dance from the glass, a nod to the well-integrated oak. The flavors unfurl with juicy red cherry and pomegranate, alongside hints of orange pekoe tea, hibiscus flower, and pink peppercorn.”

Photo courtesy of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

We’ve drunk that wine many times, and to be honest, never once gave a thought to baking spice, pomegranate or pink peppercorns.  In fact, we don’t believe we’ve ever thought of pink peppercorn after tasting any wine.

So we suggest that when you’re out winetasting and the server mentions road tar and alfalfa, take it with a bit of…well, salt would be bad idea, but don’t worry if you can’t recognize anything you were told.  Which is not to say that you shouldn’t consider the aromas and tastes that come from your glass.

  • Remember, it’s your mouth. You can’t be wrong.  Actually, you can if you’re tasting some of the flavors only found in red wines when you’re sipping a white, or vice-versa.  So if you think you’re tasting, say, dark fruits or tobacco in a Sauvignon Blanc, you either have a cold or you’re really off base.  But if you close your eyes and let smell and taste memories take over, you’ll be correct, on your own terms.
  • Listen to others. Of course, other people around you have their own memories.  If you’re tasting cherries and someone else says raspberries, they’re both red fruit, so maybe you’ll get a hint of raspberries, too.  But what if he says he can detect green peppers.  That’s often a sign of underripe grapes and you may not have picked up on that taste, but immediately recognize it when it’s pointed out to you.
  • In addition, what you’re tasting is influenced by many factors besides the wine. You will taste different things when you’re pairing a wine with a meal than you do in a tasting room.  Your mood will affect your tasting abilities.  So will your health.  Fatigue, time of day, and the perfume some thoughtless visitor is wearing at the next table all have an effect.
  • Not everyone can taste everything. It’s just a biological fact that some people have taste receptors for certain chemicals in specific wines and others don’t.  It is often written that Syrah has a definite taste of white pepper.  That may be so, but not for us.  It seems that a chemical called rotundone is found in white pepper and in low concentrations in Syrah grapes.  If you don’t have the capability to taste just a bit of rotundone, you won’t find it in your wine glass.
  • Don’t fake it. If the “official” description says a wine tastes of honeysuckle and you can’t find that, but do taste pineapple, stick by your guns.  Maybe honeysuckle was dominant at the time the description was written but it has faded now, with pineapple coming out as the wine aged.  There’s no sense convincing yourself that you taste something you don’t, just to get along by going along.

Wine Tasting on Vacation

With the Covid-19 pandemic fading away (but not gone) many of us are taking vacations again.  There are some trips for the explicit purpose of wine tasting, in which days are spent visiting wineries, getting to know the different varietals produced and enjoying being around the vineyards.  But sometimes vacationing is just to see friends and family and to take in the sights, in cities rather than in the country.

If your travel plans are leading you to Antarctica or the Sahara, there’s not much local wine to enjoy.  But almost anywhere else in the world, in North America or overseas, there is wine made nearby wherever you go.  You may not have the time to go to wineries, as we did not during our brief stay in Dubrovnik, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot about the wines they make wherever you are going.

Here are some tips to add a wine tasting adventure to any vacation.

  • Do a little planning before you go. A simple Google search on “Best wine bars in…” will give you a head start.  So will a search on “Favorite wines in…”  In the latter case, you should refer to the region, not the specific destination to which you are headed.  “Favorite wines” in France, for example, won’t help.  But if you’re headed to Lyon, for example, a quick look at a map will tell you that Beaujolais and the Northern Rhône are close enough that you’ll know what to look for on wine lists.

A place to learn about Croatian wine.  The Latin at the bottom of the sign means “Not enough wine, not enough of anything”

  • Visit an enoteca. Which is just a wine shop that offers a degustation, which is a fancy word for a tasting.  We found one in Dubrovnik, where the owner was pleased to introduce interested visitors to the history, geography and, of course, the taste of Croatian wines.  Over the years, we’ve done the same thing in Paris, Rome, Sydney, San Francisco and other places.  There’s bound to be a place to try wines anywhere you might go.
  • Take a food tour. This is also something we’ve learned to love in our travels.  A guide – hopefully, a knowledgeable guide – takes you around to places where they serve local food specialties and often the wines that pair well with them.  We were once on such a tour and all that was offered was one small glass.  On a recent food tour in Rome, wine was served in carafes on the table, white and red, for everyone to help themselves.  When we ordered another, our guide said that only the first glass was included.  We assured her that we had bought ourselves some wine many times before and had no problem to do so again that day.
  • Take advantage of where you are. We don’t suggest wine for breakfast, but a glass (maybe two) at lunch, aperitif, dinner and even for a nightcap isn’t a bad idea.  Hey, you’re on vacation, so you’ll probably want to indulge a bit anyway.  We’re just suggesting that focus on learning about the local wines.  Never order the same wine twice, so that you get as broad an exposure to local wines as possible in a short time.  If there are two of you, share tastes and double your learning.  Of course, be careful about how much you drink if you’re going to get behind the wheel of a car.

How to Go Wine Tasting with Limited Time

When we are on a wine tasting trip, we are pretty serious about it.  We chose in advance the wineries we want to visit, make appointments, pay attention to what we’re tasting and take notes.  But then there are times when we are travelling just for the sake of travel.  Sometimes we find ourselves in previously unknown parts, foreign or domestic, where we know that wine is produced.  We want to try the local wines but we don’t have time to go to vineyards, talk with the servers and generally educate ourselves.

So we do the best we can with the time we have.  Here are some tips on getting a rapid introduction to what the locals are drinking.  In our most recent travels we were in Italy, so we’ll use Italian examples.

  • Take a chance. We have often been delightedly surprised in Italy to find very reasonably priced wine lists, much more so than back home, and even less expensive bottles in stores.  So if most of the wines available in restaurants are priced in the range of 20 euros or so, why not let Lady Luck be our sommelier?  A Falanghina may sound like the name of a luxury sports car, but it’s actually a white grape mostly found in the Campania.  We first found it by this go-ahead-and-try-it method; we loved it and have been looking for it ever since.
  • Ask the waiter. If we are sitting down to a good meal, we’ll naturally ask for the wine list.  Sometimes we are told that the “list” is either red or white, so we know we are not about to learn anything.  In other cases, though, we are presented with a list of labels that provide a lot of data but no information.  We’re not familiar with the region, the grapes or the wineries.  So we ask the waiter, “What Pugliese white goes with the meal we are ordering”?  An honest waiter will think about it and recommend something that he, at least, thinks is representative of what the region has to offer.  (A dishonest waiter will just point you to the most expensive wine.  Ignore him.)
  • Find a wine shop. Native English speakers have a great advantage in traveling around the world.  Especially where tourists are plentiful many people, including shopkeepers, speak English.  So when we enter a wine shop, we can generally communicate fairly well. We ask for whatever is made locally and often come up with a wine that is either quite good for the price or simply quite good, period.  Of course, we always travel with a cork screw for just such occasions.  We take the bottle to our hotel room and have our own tasting.




What to Serve?

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