Visiting Geyserville

The way that California allocates postal addresses, a great wide swath of the northern end of Dry Creek Valley is officially listed as Geyserville.  So such redoubtable wineries as David Coffaro, Dutchers Crossing and Sbragia Family all have addresses there, even though they are far from “downtown” Geyserville.  The quote marks are used because the actual downtown area on Geyserville Avenue is only about two blocks long.

We would not recommend Geyserville as a destination on its own merits, but if you are tasting in the area, there is a certain charm that’s worth taking in.  While the town contains all the modern appurtenances, there’s still enough left of ol’ time Geyserville to give you an idea of what Sonoma County’s Wine Country used to be.

Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

The most notable taste of the past is a store with a large sign proclaiming it to be Geo. M. Bosworth & Son, General Merchandise.  There’s another sign in the window that lets you know that they sell Gents’ Furnishings and Notions.  This is the general store you’ve read about and seen in old Westerns and if you’re in the market for a cowboy hat this is the place for you.  And if you want that hat to be custom crushed, they’ll do that, too.  Today, Bosworth & Son is also a museum and a gift shop and there’s a statue of a horse out front.

There are a few tasting rooms on Geyserville Avenue, among them Meeker and Pech Merle.  Three in particular stand out.  Tonti Family and Etrusca share a tasting room and call themselves Duo Vini I Bocce.  That’s right – you can taste their wines and play bocce.  Further down the avenue is Ramazotti.  Together, they are a reminder that this area (all of Napa/Noma, actually) was settled in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Italian immigrants. They brought with them a winemaking tradition and replanted it in Northern California soil.  Ramazotti in particular features Italian wines such as Barbera and Sangiovese that are quite convincing reproductions of the Italian originals.  These wineries provide visitors with another hint of California history.

Photo courtesy of mycatellis.com

We first started coming to Geyserville to dine in a restaurant called Santi.  The food was remarkably good and the restaurant was recommended to us by many winemakers.  Alas, it closed more than a decade ago; another restaurant named Catelli’s occupies the same place, and we have not tried it yet.  But here’s the back story:  There was another Catelli’s “the Rex” that was opened in 1936 by Santi and Virginia Catelli.  The owners, Nick and Domenica Catelli are lineal descendants of the original founders. More history!

Wine Drinking in Arabia

When we say “Arabia” we are quite sure that the image that comes to mind is endless desert, Bedouins in robes and camels.  Well, yes, there’s a lot of sand.  It does get awfully hot.  Tourists do take camel rides.   And many of the men do wear robes, called thobes.  But today many of the countries of the Arabian peninsula have ultra-modern cities, with skyscrapers (including the world’s tallest), restaurants, museums and sports arenas.

What they don’t have is alcohol or, at least, not much.

The dining room at the Abu Dhabi Sheraton.

Muslims aren’t supposed to drink any alcohol and many observe this stricture.  But a lot of the cities in Arabia, such as Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi are centers of finance, trade and of course oil.  Quite a few expatriates live there, working for the big companies and governments.  There are a lot of tourists these days, too.  A fair number are Americans and Europeans who are used to a beer after work, a little whiskey on the weekend and wine with dinner.  So, in some cases, exceptions are made for non-Muslim visitors.

We have worked in that part of the world and were usually able to have some wine when we wanted to.  In the hotels that cater to Westerners, there is almost always a bar and a wine list available with meals, but there aren’t any in the unaffiliated restaurants.  Prices tend towards the high side for what you can order and there isn’t a lot of variety.

On Dubai Creek.

Many Lebanese people work in Arabia.  While Muslim, they make wine and do enjoy drinking it.  Many of the wines you’ll see on the lists come from Lebanon and some of them are quite good.  Chateau Musar is the best known and, in our opinion, the best tasting.  You’ll also see Ksara and Massaya, which are worth trying. There are some American and European wines on the lists, but they’re not the ones you’d choose back home.

There are occasional problems that remind you that you’re far away.  Women are not allowed in the bar of our hotel in Doha, Qatar without a male escort.  They also check for passports to make sure that those men and women who enter are not Qataris.  And one evening we were informed that it was a local holiday and no bars were open anywhere.  (Room service bailed us out.)

Business dinners can be problematic.  If your host is observant, you don’t want to impose on him (your host will always be a man) and order some wine.  At the same time, we have been to dinners many times where half the group wants a glass or two with dinner, while the others abstain.  It can be a little awkward, but it seems that everyone is used to it.  If you’re the host, ask if anyone else wants any wine.  If no one else is interested, it’s diplomatic to skip it yourself.

There are no wine stores and we strongly recommend that you not try to bring a few bottles in your luggage.  (We have had no personal involvement with the police authorities, but the word is that such interactions are not very pleasant.)  We were told that registered expatriates may have alcohol in some countries, with a permit.  Saudi Arabia, however, is very strict in forbidding alcohol and there really is no chance of getting any there.

So if life should bring you to this vibrant part of the world, be a good guest and stick with the hotel bars.

Towns

Many times when you go wine tasting you find yourself way out in the country, with all stores and restaurants a considerable drive away.  In other cases you’re either near a town (sometimes a city) or you’re visiting in-town tasting rooms.  Sure, you came to taste the local wines but the towns themselves are so much fun.  Many of them are historic and all have their own charm and beauty.

In no particular order, our favorites are:

  • Beaune in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or
  • Emilion in Bordeaux
  • Narbonne and Béziers in the Languedoc
  • Montalcino and Montepulciano in Tuscany
  • Radda in Chianti (which is also in Tuscany)
  • Porto in Portugal (actually in Gaia Nova, just across the Douro river)
  • Sonoma, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County
  • St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville in Napa Valley
  • Paso Robles and Santa Barbara in the Central Coast

Narbonne.

So what should you do when faced with the temptation to see a town’s attractions rather than going to more tasting rooms?  Our recommendation is to give in.  Here are a few tips to enjoy Wine Country towns without giving up too much of your wine tasting experience.

  • If you have the time, take a day to focus on visiting one or more towns. In California, this is definitely a good idea for weekends, when the wineries in the vineyards are awfully crowded.  Most European towns have a number of plazas, often built around a cathedral or a castle, that are themselves well worth a visit.  Some California towns are built around central squares that are pleasant to walk through.  Healdsburg and Sonoma are among those with town squares.

Radda in Chianti.

  • Take advantage of the tasting opportunities in the towns. In many California towns, wineries have opened tasting rooms for passers-by.  In the past these were all rather second-rate, but in recent years top producers have opened up rooms, in addition to the ones at their wineries.  In some European towns, such as Beaune, major wineries have established their headquarters and tasting facilities.  And in many others, wine shops offer degustaziones (tastings) for a small fee.
  • Enjoy being a tourist. None of these towns were crawling with visitors in the past, as little as a few decades ago in some cases.  As more outsiders came to see the vines and sip the wines, sleepy agricultural villages transformed themselves into “attractions”.  There’s no need to sneer.  The cafés do serve authentic regional fare; the handicrafts are usually made by local artisans; the houses and churches are picturesque.  What’s not to enjoy?
  • Stay the night…or a few days. That’s when you get a true feel for Wine Country.  The day trippers are gone and when you step into a wine bar, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with the people who tend the grapes and make the wines you came to enjoy.     If you keep your ears open, you’ll hear conversations about yields and trellising that let you know that the people around you get their hands dirtier than you ever will, just so you can enjoy a bottle of wine.
  • You never know who you’ll meet. We were having an after-dinner drink at Willi’s in Healdsburg when we got into a conversation with the fellow sitting next to us at the bar.  It turns out he was the executive chef at some of our  favorite American restaurants, including Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen nearby.  We told him how much we admired Mr. Palmer’s restaurants and then he went back to talking with his pals. A few minutes later he turned back to us and introduced one of his friends: “Hi, I’m Charlie Palmer” said the friend, his hand outstretched.

The Eiffel Tower

One of the features of Power Tasting is a monthly article on a Place to Visit that isn’t about wine but is in Wine Country.  And since this edition is about the beaten path, there’s no path in all of France that’s been trod more often than the one that leads to the Eiffel Tower.  But wait, is Paris really in Wine Country?  Surprisingly, the answer is “yes”.  You can make a day trip to Champagne or the Loire and amazingly, there are still a handful vineyards in Paris itself.  None of the urban vineyards are very big (one has only ten vines) but they qualify the city for inclusion.

The Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero.  Photo courtesy of the Hotel Eiffel Trocadero.

So about that tower.  For one thing, it’s one of those iconic structures, along with the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and the Kremlin, that are emblematic of their entire country.  Its story is pretty well known, so we’ll recount it here only briefly.  It was named for Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built it for the 1889 World’s Fair or Exposition Universelle.  It was derided in its own time but has become beloved ever since.  You can ride to near the top for a great view of Paris, with restaurants on the second and third levels.

The issue is not whether you’ll see the Eiffel Tower.  When you go to Paris, you can’t miss it and you’ll take your picture in front of it.  We’d like to give you some ideas as to how to see it.

The Eiffel Tower is located in the 7th Arrondissement, on the Left Bank of the Seine. This sector is one of the more elegant residential areas of the city and worth walking around in.  The tower itself is in a park, the Champs de Mars, where royal troops used to train back in the time just before the French Revolution.  In pleasant weather, you can join Parisians in stretching out, kicking a ball or listening to itinerant musicians.  Or you can walk up to the Eiffel Tower, lean your head back and try to take it all in.  Maybe that’s why Eiffel’s contemporaries couldn’t appreciate it; they couldn’t really see it properly.

For us, the best place to see the tower is across the river at the Place du Trocadero.  Sit at a café on the place and soak in the view.  From there you can see the tower in the perspective we believe Eiffel intended, massive but contained within Paris.  Keep in mind that only a few decades before the fair, Paris had been completely renovated into the gorgeous city we know today.  The Eiffel Tower added an exclamation point to the city. Viewing it from the Trocadero puts it in context.

Hovering over the city.

As you walk around the sector where the tower is, you’ll see it above many of the rooftops.  There’s no better way to enjoy this kind of view than sitting in a café with a coffee and a French pastry or with a glass of wine.  And do see it at night.  Since the Millennium celebration, the Eiffel Tower erupts in a symphony of flashing lights, for five minutes every hour on the hour.  The Parisians have never lacked for a sense of the dramatic.

Les-Baux-de-Provence

Nestled in the rocky area of southern France known as the alpilles, or the little Alps, is the village of Les-Baux-de-Provence.  In the valleys below are vineyards making red, white and rosé wines that in recent years have received AOC status under the name of the village.

Photo courtesy of Rue des Vignerons

The village itself is a small gem, a UNESCO world heritage site.  It has been occupied for a thousand years and the local people have maintained its medieval character to this day.  It was once a fortress and the mighty walls are still there for you to see and walk along.  You will see it as you drive up through the valley and you’ll be hard put not to gasp in delight.

The ruined building atop Les Baux is the Château, which was the home of some renegade princes and was torn down, rebuilt, and torn down again as the fortunes of war and politics swayed over the years.  By the 19th century Les Baux was pretty much abandoned.  Then they discovered an ore nearby that contained aluminum and called it bauxite.  The mines are depleted now, but by the time that happened, the tourists had discovered the village.

Today, the 400 or so residents of Les-Baux-de-Provence are joined by thousands of visitors each year.  It is a great place to wander through ancient streets, walk the walls and stop for a meal.  There are many cafés and restaurants, where you can have typical French meals as well as some gourmet fare.

The remains of the Château are the most visited attraction and you will have to contend with the tour buses that deposit their passengers there.  It is worth seeing, if only for the views across the alpilles. The most notable site in the village below is the 12th century Church of St. Vincent.  It’s not a magnificent cathedral but rather a simple village church.  It’s simplicity belies many notable reasons to visit the church.  The windows are modern glass, a gift to the people of Les Baux from Prince Rainier of Monaco.  There are also modern murals of Provencal shepherds celebrating Christmas.

Down below the village, hidden amongst the rocks and vineyards, is the Relais & Château Hôtel Baumanière that has merged with the neighboring hotel La Cabro d’Or,  a jewel in the repertory of this prestigious hotel chain.  One wonderful memory of the three Michelin stars restaurant in this hotel is being served a steak à la moëlle.  This is a New York strip topped with beef bone marrow with a small bone filled with marrow on the side.  They recommend removing the marrow with a tiny spoon they give you.  To this day, we still salivate when we think about this.

It is Christmas that really defines Les Baux.  Each year, on Christmas Eve, the villagers form creche vivante (or living creche) around the altar in St. Vincents.  The villagers dress in quaint costumes and they lead their farm animals into the recreated manger.  It is unlikely that you’ll ever see the ceremony; it’s for the people of the village, not visitors.  But you can see the villagers preparing for midnight mass and realize that the waitress and the store clerk you meet are probably members of the touching statement of faith in the church.

Santons.  Photo courtesy of lesbauxdeprovence.com.

There’s another Christmas tradition that comes from Les Baux.  Many people in America and elsewhere decorate their homes with miniature houses and people made of porcelain.  These are called santons.  Perhaps the people who treasure these delicate pieces don’t realize it, but the village they’re recreating is in fact Les-Baux-de-Provence. There’s even a museum of santons there.  Yet another reason to visit Les Baux when you’re wine tasting is to collect some of these miniatures from the place where they originated.

 

 

 

 

Contrasts in Places to Visit: California and Europe

The Places to Visit feature in Power Tasting is about the other things to do when you’re making a trip to somewhere in Wine Country.  Since most of our wine tasting experience (and maybe that of our readers) is in California and in Europe, we thought we’d compare the two in terms of non-wine visiting.

Photo courtesy of Patch.com.

Woody Guthrie sang that “California is a Garden of Eden, a Paradise to live in and see”.  He went on to say less positive things, but let’s leave it there because it’s true.  The Golden State has it all: sandy beaches, rocky coastline, desert, mountains, farmland and cities.  It is also unquestionably the source of the finest wines made in the United States, which makes it the premier American destination for wine tasting.  And it has lovely places to visit that aren’t about wine.  There are great cities, ski resorts, and charming towns that speak to American history.  We love it and travel there often.  But for places to visit, it’s not Europe.

Reims Cathedral in Champagne.  

Now, as noted elsewhere in this issue, Europe is a big place with a lot of locations where wine is made.  Perhaps somewhere in Europe there is an area where they make wine but there is nothing else of interest.  Perhaps, but we doubt it.  In our experience, everywhere wine is made, there is a cathedral or a church worth visiting somewhere nearby.  There is a café with delicious coffee and pastries.  There is a market somewhere in the area almost every day.  And there are a few millennia of history.

Somewhere around the vineyards – sometimes in the vineyards themselves – a battle was fought.  Particularly in France, there is a monument to the glorious fallen heroes of each village.  We have always found it moving to read the names and visit the local cemetery to see those same names echoed over decades and centuries.  The same names are now also over the butcher shop and the bakery.  And on the labels of the wines made there.

In many of the places where wine is made there are castles to see from the road and to visit.  In many cases, the descendants of the nobles who built the castles still live there while others now are used as bed-and-breakfasts.  Or both.  We once had the experience in the Dordogne of sleeping in an 11th century castle and having breakfast served to us by the Count himself!

The overall point of this comparison is that wine tasting in California is primarily about wine. Almost anywhere you can taste wine in Europe you can experience something else that is wonderful.  Even in places where everyone you see is in the wine business, one way or another, they have lives and histories that transcend wine.  The place is in their stones and in their bones.  So if you’re fortunate enough to go wine tasting in Europe, make sure to immerse yourself in the places and people and try to share their lives as much as is possible for a visitor.  If for no other reason, it will give you a special appreciation for their wines that you can’t get any other way.

 

 

Jimtown Store, Farewell

The Jimtown Store had permanently closed at the end of 2019, so this is not late breaking news.  But its passing, as well as the 28 years in which it served travelers in the Alexander Valley, tells a tale about what Sonoma County was and what it is now.

Photo courtesy of Alexander Valley Winegrowers.

The best that can be said about the Jimtown Store is that it served really good food in a beautiful general store setting, along a country road with views of the mountains.  We always looked forward to lunch there when we went wine tasting in the area.  They had a few tables in the store aisles among shelves packed with goodies, gifts and old fashioned toys.  They also had an outside charming seating area.  It was a relic of another age, with its somewhat dilapidated exterior and the old red Ford pickup parked outside.  The sign outside touted “Good Food” and the store delivered on its promise.

But it was a fake.

Yes, there had been a general store there back in the late 1800’s but it had been closed for years when John Werner and Carrie Brown bought it in 1989.  They refurbished the place, but not too much, to retain the feel of what it had been.  They were not starry-eyed beginners but experienced entrepreneurs in the gourmet food trade.  They opened the store not to serve the local population but rather wine-loving tourists who needed to put some food in their bellies as they hopped from winery to winery.

That told the story of what Sonoma County was becoming in the 1990s and into this century.  Wine grapes were long grown there. The area was focused on farming and winemaking, but there were few tasting rooms, much like Napa Valley 25 years before.  Werner and Brown could see what was coming and filled their store with fancy foodstuffs and gourmet sandwiches.  Now we like fancy foodstuffs and we always enjoyed the gourmet sandwiches but we knew quite well that this wasn’t what the farmhands were eating.

Jimtown Store wasn’t an ol’ time general store any more than Jordan Winery is an English manor or Ledson Winery is a haunted castle.  But all of them were built on the proposition that pretense plus wine equals tourist dollars.

As indicative of Sonoma County as was the Jimtown Store, so was the cause of the store’s closure: wildfire and its effect on tourism.  The recent Kincaid fire came awfully close and it frightened away many wine tasters during the high tourism season.  That, combined with Covid-19, is also a part of what Sonoma County and many other areas of Wine Country have become: a tourist destination starved of visitors.

Again, we want to emphasize that we are among the tourists who in the past have added to Sonoma county’s economy.  We won’t be going this year because of the pandemic and many wineries have only limited openings anyway for the same reason.

The Jimtown Store wasn’t just good food; it was fun.  And Sonoma County isn’t just good wine, either.  The pleasures of going wine tasting are being forced to change, but we who love to do it must always preserve the fun.

Farewell, Jimtown Store.  We eagerly await the next chapter of visiting Wine Country, Sonoma County very much included.

 

 

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.