Los Olivos, California

Power Tasting has frequently extolled the virtues of in-town tasting.  But we were thinking of towns like Healdsburg, Yountville or even far away in Montalcino in Italy.  It’s a very different but equally pleasurable experience to go wine tasting in a village that’s not near a major airport, has lots of local wineries, not one of them that could be called a palace.  If that sounds attractive to you, find your way to Los Olivos in California’s Central Coast.

There are many wineries and vineyards in the vicinity of Los Olivos.  Among the best known are Firestone, Beckmen, Fess Parker and the fabled Bien Nacido vineyard.  We suggest you visit these, but we particularly urge you to pull into “downtown” Los Olivos.   There’s not a lot to it: three blocks of Grand Avenue and two of Alamo Pintado Avenue that together host 32 (!) tasting rooms.  (A few of them specialize in beer, not wine, but that’s okay too.)

“Downtown” Los Olivos.  Photo courtesy of www.losolivosca.com.

With all of these establishments to choose among, it’s a good idea to have a game plan when you visit Los Olivos.  Given enough time, you can at least in theory try all them all.  But for most wine tasters there’s probably only one day to sample among the town’s riches.  The usual rule of thumb of one hour per winery doesn’t apply here, not with one tasting room cheek by jowl with the next one.  So we suggest a walk down the two avenues to get a feel for the place.  Take note of the tasting rooms, but also enjoy the “little American home town” atmosphere.

While you’re at it, eat some food.  If you plan to return home that day, a degree of temperance is absolutely necessary.  Even if you stay overnight, you need to be selective.  There are a few places to eat, one of which were briefly featured in the movie Sideways.  In fact, one not very good reason to visit Los Olivos is to brag that you went where the movie was shot.  That was a long time ago and many of the wineries have changed since then.

Refugio Ranch Vineyards tasting room on Grand Avenue.  Photo courtesy of Central Coast Uncorked

This being Central Coast, you will find a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The Pinots in particular have some real aficionados.  And if you are a red wine drinker, save some room for the Syrahs and Rhône blends.  We have found some of these to be excellent.

If you enjoy the wine you taste in the first, somewhat randomly chosen location, ask the server about other tasting rooms that might have similar wines.  There’s no guarantee that the server knows what you enjoy, so there might need to be a few visits until you hit your groove.  Another approach is just to choose the most attractive tasting rooms and enjoy the wine without concern for top quality.  To be honest, you are likelier to have the pleasure of discovering wines you never heard of in these tasting rooms than to finding the next Screaming Eagle.  Either way, you should have a good time in Los Olivos.

Hospices de Beaune

This being an edition of Power Tasting focused on health, choosing a location for the Places to Visit column poses a particular challenge.  But aha! What about a hospital?  A hospital as a place to visit while wine tasting?  Well, the Hospices de Beaune used to be a hospital and it’s smack-dab in the middle of Burgundy’s famed Côte d’Or (or Golden Coast).

Beaune is a small town that forms the demarcation between the two Burgundian regions that are the home to some of the world’s most well-regarded Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  To the north is the Côte de Nuit (the Night Coast, with wines of more minerality and structure) and to the south is the Côte de Beaune, with more luscious reds, more delicate whites.  In 1443, the Chancellor of Burgundy founded a hospital in this town.  Now, a hospital in the Middle Ages was not a good place to get well.  The rich stayed sick at home and the poor went to hospitals in the expectation that they would die there.

Photo courtesy of beaune-tourism.com.

But the Hospices de Beaune was different.  It was intended to be a palace for the poor and palatial it was…and is.  It has extravagant Gothic architecture, with turrets and garrets surrounding a broad courtyard.  The interior, where the patients lay, features a grand, vaulted ceiling and nooks for the beds.  And the roof!  One of the architectural joys of ancient Burgundian châteaux is the intricate tilework on the roofs, and that at the Hospices de Beaune is among the best.

Photo courtesy of Burgundy Tourism.

Amazingly, the Hospices de Beaune continued to serve patients until 1971.  Today it’s a museum where you can – you should – see it all when you go wine tasting in Burgundy.  Be prepared to be wrapped in history, art and architecture.  Just as much, you will be in the midst of wine history.  As the Hospices was becoming established, local nobles donated land to help fund its operations.  That land was in areas we now know as Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Savigny, Corton, Mazis-Chambertin, Echezeaux and Clos de la Roche as well as Beaune itself.  Needless to say, these are communes that produce some of the greatest Burgundy wines.  Today, the Domaines de Hospices de Beaune are spread over 60 hectares (148 acres), with Pinot Noir constituting 85% of the vines.

Once a year, in mid-November, there is a weekend-long charity auction of Hospices de Beaune’s wines.  Most are Grand Crus and Premier Crus.  Members of the wine trade, connoisseurs of Burgundy wines and some very serious wine lovers assemble in the Great Hall to bid on the wines.  Of course, there are other festivities, including a coveted, invitation-only dinner at the nearby Clos de Vougeot château, hosted by the Chevaliers de Tastevin, the exclusive Burgundy wine society.  Perhaps you’re interested in bidding on a case or two?  Sorry, but they auction it off by the barrel.

If, like us, you enjoy travelling around the world-wide Wine Country, the Côte d’Or should be on your list.  If you go, you should visit Beaune.  Many of the top negociants have tasting rooms there.  And when you do go to Beaune, make sure to leave time to see the Hospices de Beaune.

France: A Place to Visit

Despite the headline, you can’t visit France, because France isn’t just one place.  (These days, you actually can’t visit France at all because of the pandemic.)  The country is so varied that you can’t take it all in, either as a visitor or even as a resident.  It’s cities and countryside and mountains and beaches and, of course, vineyards.

For a wine lover, visiting France is to have a little time in paradise, and almost every sector of the country grows grapes for wine.  But the grapes in those vineyards differ tremendously, even those a short distance from each other.  For example, if you start in the city of Lyons and drive just a half hour northwards, the vines hang heavy with Gamay and the wines are Beaujolais.  The whites are Chardonnay, as they are just a bit north of Beaujolais but the red grapes are Pinot Noir.

The terraced vineyards of the Côte Rôtie.

If you leave Lyons in the other direction, again just a half hour away, you’re in the Northern Rhône and the red grapes are mostly Syrah and the whites Roussanne and Marsanne.  By comparison with America, the Northern Rhône and Beaujolais are as far apart as Carneros and Calistoga; imagine totally different production between one end of Napa Valley and the other.

The heart of Champagne is only a few hours’ drive from the heart of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy.  Yes, they both grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the wines they make are totally different.  So are the foods, the castles and the history of the two regions.  It is not hard to envelope yourself in either place but there is a wrenching disconnect if you travel between them.

Further west, the Loire Valley, also known as the Touraine (for the city of Tours) is best known for Sauvignon Blanc.  The best-known red wine is Chinon, made from Cabernet Franc, although there is plenty of Gamay grown as well.  These wines, for the most part, are not as grand as those of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but they do make pleasant drinking.

The broad expanse of vineyards in the Languedoc.

Speaking of Bordeaux, the majestic red wines grown there are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with Sémillon the major grape for white wines.  For the travelling wine taster, Bordeaux is the most difficult to visit and surely the snobbiest part of France.  By contrast, head either east from Bordeaux to the Southern Rhône Valley or south to Languedoc and the red grapes are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and the whites are Viognier and Picpoul, among others.  (Actually, in Languedoc, you’ll find a little of everything.)

And so, our advice to our wine tasting friends is not to try to visit France all at once.  Instead, focus on one or at most two regions at a time.  Get to know the people, the villages, the roads, the markets, the foods and of course the wines.  Historically, France was stitched together from many distinct regions.  To this day, a Breton and a Provençal have accents as different as a Brooklynite and a Texan.  Yes, they talk the same language, but with very different accents.   But the US is a very big country and France is relatively small.  Going a short distance in France can change everything, from the wine to the architecture to the cuisine.  But it’s all France.

Jerome, Arizona

The State of Arizona is a wonderland for vacationers.  There are the thriving metropolis of Phoenix and its tony suburb, Scottsdale, where you can visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.  Natural beauties abound.  There are the magnificent red rocks of Sedona, the Painted Desert and more stunning than any other natural wonder is the Grand Canyon.  We encourage you to avail yourself of all the best that Arizona has to offer.

And if you have one more day, we suggest you drive to the tiny village of Jerome.  Once a thriving mining town, Jerome once had 15,000 residents.  But then the mine closed, the people left and it became a veritable ghost town.  Today, Jerome has been revived as…well, there’s no other way to say it, Jerome is a tourist destination.  Not a trap, it’s too much for that.  But it exists only so that tourists can come look at it, eat a meal or two, buy souvenirs and leave.

Jerome as it once was… Photo courtesy of the Jerome Grand Hotel.

So why are we featuring it as a Place to Visit in Power Tasting?  Because there are local wines to taste in Jerome.

…And as it is today.  Photo courtesy of Experience Scottsdale.

Every state in America has vineyards.  The three Pacific states make world renowned wines.  A few others are producing some creditable wines.  It is Power Tasting’s policy not to say bad things about any winery, but we aren’t urging you to make the journey to Jerome just for the wines.  But we do recommend that you make it if you are in the area.

Getting there is half the fun, if your idea of fun is driving up a long, steep road.  You are rewarded for that drive by magnificent views across the desert.  If you’re the one driving, keep your eyes on the road; if you’re a passenger, try not to let your knuckles get too white.

Once you get into town and find somewhere to park, the best thing to do is just walk around.  In some ways, Jerome is small-town America, with the emphasis on “small”.  In another, it’s a lovingly recreated (and somewhat embellished) corner of the now-lost West.  There are no gunfights on Main Street and probably never were, but there are saloons, cafes, galleries and restored buildings.

And there are winery tasting rooms.  Among them are Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards, Jerome Winery, Vina Zona, Echo Canyon and others.  Most of them offer a fairly wide selection of wines, starting with the expected varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  But many feature less common grapes like Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Garnacha and blends of just about anything they can grow.  We don’t think that any of these grapes were intended for production in the High Chaparral, but there are some hardy pioneers who are doing it.

A visit to Jerome may not reward the avid wine taster with a life-changing experience.  But you can have a fun day visiting a restored ghost town.  And when you get home, you can brag that you tasted wines made in Arizona.

A Fantastic Place to Visit

Each month Power Tasting features a Place to Visit.  It’s in Wine Country somewhere, but is not necessarily wine-related.  We’ve taken you to small villages, medieval cities, a trade show and great wine bars.  This month, we’d like to suggest that everyone take a very close look at a very special place: your own immediate neighborhood.

We live in Manhattan’s West Village sector.  When it’s not raining, we take brief walks and we get to see our neighborhood in a very different way.  The streets are almost deserted, both of cars and pedestrians.  There are more people in the park than we’d like, so we avoid it most of the time.  Some people are wearing masks; most aren’t.

But it’s still New York and it’s still spring.  We don’t know a lot about flowering trees but we think Google is telling us that the white ones are calley pear trees and the pink ones are well, pretty pink trees.

We’re walking along streets we don’t usually take.  Even though West Street is on one side of our apartment building, we don’t usually walk there because there’s really no place to go.  Normally, the traffic on this major artery alongside the river is quite heavy, so a walk amidst the fumes isn’t very inviting.  But with the traffic almost all gone, it’s more pleasant, even though there’s still nothing very interesting along it.  But with our horizons shrinking in, we have found a little spot where the city has planted a mini-garden and a park bench, sadly often occupied by a homeless fellow.  There are a few restaurants we have pledged to try when the city re-opens.  And we’re seeing the back end of the Whitney Museum, a view we don’t usually get.

When we have gotten into Hudson River Park on a bright sunny day, we see New York in suspended animation.  There’s the biergarten that will hopefully return with warmer weather.  An interesting statue of the New York symbol, the Big Apple.  The river itself, with fewer boats than usual.  Two long piers, one that reaches well into the Hudson and provides stunning views of the city.  Remember, all these sights are not more than ten minutes from our door, on foot.

We live along the Hudson River

New York is all about BIG.  But these days, we’re seeing New York in miniature.  We take the time to notice the 19th century row houses, the cobblestone streets, the tall, new glass-and-steel apartments and the chipping paint on some of the older ones.  We know those things were there before but now we’re seeing them as the only parts of outdoors that are readily available to us.  Quite frankly, we look forward to the time when we will walk by these things without taking special notice.  When we’ll smile at passers-by, not walk into the street to avoid breathing the same air as they do.  When we can board a plane and go wine tasting.

It will be better someday.  But our neighborhood will always be a place to visit.  And then, when you do, you’ll be able to stop in a trattoria for a glass of wine.

VinExpo New York 2020

This month’s Places to Visit article is about a place most wine lovers can’t visit.  It’s a trade show that was held in March in New York City’s Javits Center for the international wine trade.  As Power Tasting’s reporters are considered to be “trade”, we were able to attend and are pleased to offer our readers an account of what the event was all about.

Part of the French pavilion at VineExpo New York 2020.

It was mostly about the business of wine.  In particular, growers from all over the world sought importers and distributors so that they could sell their wines in the US, especially on the Eastern Seaboard.  And of course, importers and distributors were looking for new producers without the expense of travelling overseas.  [VinExpo New York occurred on March 2 and 3, after the coronavirus had begun to spread but before it was the worldwide crisis it has become.]

Wines were displayed (and tasted) from all over the globe: France, Italy and Spain being the most prominently positioned, but Brazil, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Georgia also had sizable exhibits.  (That’s Georgia from the Caucasus, not from Dixie.)  There was a huge tasting area for organic wines.  There were also numerous exhibits of wine accompaniments, such as glasses, barware and preservation systems.

Jeffrey Franklin of the Society of Wine Educators discussing (and tasting) with Armelle Cruse and Paul Maron of Cru Bourgeois du Medoc.

There were also many lectures and curated tastings.  These were split between sessions that were clearly for those in the wine business, such as a panel discussion sponsored by Wine Spectator on “The Changing World of Wine Retail in the US” and others that were about wines from certain locations, such as the Czech Republic and Sonoma County.  Not surprisingly, the lectures that included tastings were the ones most widely attended.

So what was to be learned that is of interest to (shall we say “non-professional”) wine tasters?

  • Wine is a business and internationally it’s a big business. From the casual buyer to the connoisseur, wine drinkers buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of wine each year.  We learned that this market is expected to grow to more than $400 billion by 2023.  As a group, we wine tasters have some economic clout.
  • Some very good wines are being made in places other than those we’re accustomed to. Brazilian sparkling wine?  Not bad.  Czech Muller-Thurgau?  Worth sipping.  With wine being made in all fifty of the United States, we Americans shouldn’t be surprised by other countries’ entry into the market.
  • Small producers have a tough time breaking into the US market. Of course, this does not come as a shock.  With the shipper, the importer, the distributor and the retailer (or restaurateur) adding their costs to the price of a bottle, it is either not financially feasible for many small wine houses to sell here or for many customers to take a chance with a virtually unknown wine.
  • There’s more to the wine business than wine. Somebody makes money selling the rack you store the wine in, the gizmo you use to pull out the cork and the glasses you sip it from.  Of course, you knew that.  But seeing it all in one place reminds us that there’s an awful lot of money needed to get the wines we love get from the vine to our tables.

Pézenas, France

Pézenas is a quiet commune of 8,000 souls, nestled in the uplands of the Languedoc.  As with most villages in that region, wines are made all around it, mostly blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.  Because of the schist soil, the wines there tend to be a bit stony.  If you are in the region for wine tasting, you should also stop to visit the village.

The local tourist people make a big deal about Molière, who lived there for awhile in the 1650s.  His great acclaim came in Paris later on, but the people of Pézenas claim him as a “local boy made good” to this day.  You’ll find a statue of the great playwright across from the Brasserie Molière and the Grand Hotel Molière.  There’s a pretty row of cafés there, but they’re rather touristy.

Along the Cours Jean Jaurès in Pézenas, with the Collégiale Saint-Jean in the background.

You should definitely explore the eateries in Pézenas.  On the advice of a local gentleman out walking his dog, we had a superb three-course meal, with wine, for under fifty euros for two people.  Just taking a coffee along the delightfully decorated main drag, the Cours Jean Jaurès, and you know you’re in France.

On that same street, the Piscenois (for so the local inhabitants call themselves) host a grand outdoor market every Saturday.  It takes up the entire center of town and is well-attended by the townspeople and tourists alike.

All the above are great reasons to visit Pézenas.  Best of all, nestled within the charming village is a medieval one.  It has been preserved, cleaned up and adorned with the sorts of shops and galleries that tourists seem to adore.  Yes, we could have done with a few less chocolateries, but it is fair to say that people in the Middle Ages must have walked these narrow streets to buy their bread and olives, so why should we scoff at the commerce that makes this little corner of history possible.

The town square in medieval Pézenas.

You enter through a stone portal on the aforementioned Cours Jean Jaurès and you find yourself carried back eight centuries.  You have choice of streets to follow.  To the right you’ll eventually find yourself in the ancient town square.  There you can stop for a meal or a drink and pretend to be a few centuries older than you are.  From there, too, you can choose from among several streets, alleys really, in which to wander.

The ancient ghetto of Pézenas.

Everywhere you turn, you’re likely to find something to delight your eyes.  Here there’s a fountain, there a statue, up the street a merchant’s house that you’re welcome to inspect.  We found most moving the ancient Jewish ghetto.  Yes, even then, even here, discrimination flourished.  Of course, today this section holds housing for all who can afford it.

That is the overall attraction of Pézenas.  Side by side you find the contemporary, memories of greatness and a wonderfully preserved bit of long-ago times.  And all surrounded by the vineyards of Languedoc!



The Little Wine Shop

This story occurred in Taormina, a resort town on the cliffs above the Mediterranean, on the east coast of Sicily.  But it could have been anywhere.

The bay o\f Taormina

We checked into our hotel and, as we had reserved, saw that we had a large terrace attached to our room, with a motor-driven shade that made it tolerable to sit there in the heat of the afternoon Sicilian sun.  The view was so gorgeous, we knew immediately that we had to have a bottle of white wine for sipping while admiring the view.  So we asked the front desk where we might buy some and they recommended a shop a few blocks away (and up the hill), called Mamma Mia.


Mamma Mia enoteca.  Photo courtesy of Tripadvisor.

Mamma Mia!  Could there be anything more stereotypical than a shop by that name.  (Actually, the sign in front said, in English, New Mamma Mia, so maybe there was an old one somewhere.)

One side of the shop was a convenience store cum salumeria, the other an enoteca.  Both sides were presided over by a young man named Fernando.  As we entered, he was selling olives to another couple who then wanted some wine.  They didn’t speak Italian and Fernando didn’t understand whatever language they spoke but it became clear that they were looking for a cool, refreshing and inexpensive wine.

After they left it was our turn and we guessed Fernando thought that two more foreigners would want the cheap stuff, too.  That wasn’t what we were after and in our broken Italian we made that clear to him.  So he pulled a few biancos off the wall that cost around twenty euros apiece.  We decided to buy one if he had it on ice but then asked if he had anything better or, in fact, to show us his best wine.  (This entailed a lot of hand motions, a little English, maybe a word or two of French and whatever Italian we could dredge up from our limited vocabulary.)

So he reached back and showed us a bottle of white wine for forty euros, which he said was his best and most expensive.  He was a little apprehensive about suggesting such a high-priced wine but also a little eager to show some interested visitors what he considered to be the best of Sicily.  So in addition to the one we had already chosen, we took the top wine, which he did not have refrigerated.  We had a small fridge in our room, so we bought some olives, a piece of cheese and some sausage and went back to our hotel to enjoy the view.

The ”special” wine

The next day we had our little feast for lunch and opened the “special’ wine.  It was a Duca di Salaparuta Bianca di Valguarnera Bianco Terre Siciliane, and it was among the most enjoyable white wines we had ever tasted.  But it’s only available in Italy, maybe only in Sicily.  During our stay in Taormina, we became regulars at Mamma Mia’s enoteca and salumeria.

Moral of the story: in your travels, when you want a good bottle of wine, ask where the locals shop and get their best.  You’ll rarely be disappointed.


Tasting in Napa Valley – A Status Report

In the more than 40 years that we have been visiting Napa Valley, we’ve seen many changes.  Some have been for the better, some for the worse as would only be expected over such a long period of time.  Fortunately, some things will never change.  The mountains and the valley floor will always be beautiful, showing different characteristics as the seasons pass.  The earth will always support superb vines.  And, so we hope, those vines will be producing extraordinary wines for many years to come.

For those like us who take pleasure in visiting Napa Valley for wine tasting, we present our perspective on the plusses and minuses of the region today.

  • The top wineries may be making the finest wines, year after year, that have ever been made there. In a recent visit we focused on the reserve tasting at some of the best vineyards.  Almost without exception (there were a few, but we’ll let those pass) the red wines in particular equaled or surpassed anything we have tasted before.  The wines from the drought years are maturing admirably and the recent vintages sparkle.  You are almost certain to sip great wines when you visit.
  • Merlot is less available in tasting rooms, while Malbec is becoming more prominent. Of course there are still great Merlots to be sampled.  Beringer’s Bancroft Ranch and Pine Ridge’s Carneros Merlot were our recent favorites.  But more and more wineries are featuring single varietal Malbecs.  Although it is historically a Bordeaux grape, the Bordelais barely use it anymore.  We suspect that its new popularity stems from its dominant use in Argentine wines.

The tasting room at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

  • Wine tasting prices have skyrocketed. You will have to pay a pretty penny to sample the top wines, though.  Based on a non-scientific sample, we can report that $45 is table stakes to taste reserve wines.  Mondavi charges $75 for a reserve tasting; Joseph Phelps charges $85.  You can partake of a tasting in Pete Buttiegieg’s wine cave (actually it’s at Hall Rutherford) for $125.  Wine tasting in Napa Valley has become unaffordable for many people.  Moreover, the prices of the top wines at almost every winery we visited are $100 or more, some into the $200s.
  • The same can be said for hotel rooms. There may be inexpensive places to stay, but we haven’t found them.  We now pay for a room what we would have walked away from only a few years ago.  Using your points at a Marriott or Hilton property may be a good tactic.

The tasting room at Trefethen Family Vineyards, where all the tastings are seated

  • More and more wineries are erecting Napa Palaces. Places that only a few years ago were little more than farmhouses with a bar have now become elegant “visitor centers”.  Stag’s Leap, Louis M. Martini and Joseph Phelps are among them.  Some reserve the fancier digs for members of their wine clubs; Etude, Pine Ridge, Domaine Carneros and Bouchaine are among these.  It’s hard to say if this is a positive or negative trend.  The new buildings are indeed beautiful, but they are further removed from the elemental farming and winemaking that has made Napa Valley what it is.
  • Increasingly, wines are served in seated tastings. Again, this may be viewed as a plus.  You are less likely to be standing next to an over-served know-it-all at the bar.  But on busy days it may prove harder to get your glass refilled.  The servers are more like waiters than educators; they have less time to explain to you the details about what you are sipping.  And while you won’t be bothered by other visitors, you’re less likely to meet interesting people who share the same enthusiasm for wine.

As we said, Napa Valley has changed and surely will do so in the future.  It is still a wonderful destination for wine lovers.  We just think it’s best to be aware of what the conditions are before you book your trip.


We almost didn’t visit Narbonne.  We were in southwest France to soak up village life and to visit vineyards.  Why spend time visiting a second-tier city that wasn’t on the list of “must-see” places in the country.  But it was only a short drive from where we were staying and so why not?  It would have been a big mistake to miss Narbonne.

Located in the heart of Languedoc Roussillon, there are indeed many vineyards in the general area as well as some famous beaches (Narbonne Plage) nearby.  The city manages to contain ancient monuments, 19th century splendor and modernity quite well together.

Gargoyles on Narbonne’s cathedral.

The best of the ancient buildings are a gothic cathedral and an almost as old bishops’ palace, so we went to take in a bit of medieval culture.  And indeed, the cathedral is impressive.  There had been others on the same location and in 1268 the Pope decided that the town was safe enough from heretics to build a new one.  Most of it was erected, but they never quite got around to finishing it.  What they did build is quite an eyeful, especially the gargoyles around the top.

By all means see the old stones, but leave time for the more contemporary, less touristy attractions Narbonne has to offer.  For us, foodies that we are, the topmost among these is the grand indoor market, Les Halles de Narbonne.  Like other markets in France, you’ll find a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables bursting with color and flavor. (If you’re there at the end of summer, eat mirabelles, small green plums that are the sweetest we’ve ever tasted and you can’t find them in the United States.)  There are beautiful meats, of course with butchers who will slice you a steak of Aubrac beef.  And the cheese counters are a tour of French pastures.

But not everywhere can you find the kiosk that specializes in tapenades, the olive and anchovy spreads beloved in the south of France.  Or the fellow who will sell you cassoulet in an earthenware bowl for you to heat it up in.  Or counters of tapas bars (Narbonne is quite close to Spain) where the locals meet on weekend mornings for snacks and wine.

A procession of winemakers through Les Halles de Narbonne during the Fête des Vendanges

Should you be there on the second Saturday of September, the local winemaking fraternities hold their annual Fête des Vendanges (harvest festival).  You can see the members of these wine societies parade through the village and into the Marché, striding with a few instrumentalists among the food stalls.  A grand feast is held outside on long picnic tables, with food available from many of the stalls inside.  You feel as though you were just transported to the Middle Ages.

Along the Canal de la Robine in Narbonne

If you’d like to sit in a bistro along a tree-shaded canal, Narbonne offers many of them as well, along the Canal de la Robine that crosses the city.  In warm weather, which is most of the year, there are outdoor tables in front of every restaurant.  Your only problem is choosing which one.

Finally, leave some time just to walk around.  There are narrow medieval streets, leafy boulevards and lots of charming places to stop for a coffee.  Avail yourself of this little French jewel of a city, and then drive just outside of town and visit the vineyards.