We have been enjoying wine tasting for many years.  We keep going back to Wine Country because of the beauty of the environment, enjoying our favorite wines, getting to know the terroir and the people who make wine.  At this point in our wine tasting “career” we get our greatest enjoyment from making discoveries.

There are different sorts of discoveries and all are wonderful because they are, by definition, unexpected.  One sort is finding that a winery that we’re already familiar with has some delicious wines that we didn’t know that they made.  In recent months, one such was Etude Wines’ L’Esprit, their new dessert wine, which we hadn’t ever heard of, even though we are members of their wine club.  For another example, we knew all about Robert Mondavi Winery’s top-ranked Cabernet Sauvignons.  But we were unaware of the depth of their portfolio of Pinot Noirs.

The reverse can also happen, finding that a winery that we hadn’t thought much of can produce some high-quality wines.  Very often that’s because those that focus on the mass market only allow their winemakers to make small amounts of finer wines, just to show off their chops.  These wines are usually available only in the tasting rooms and then only in small quantities.  The only way you’ll ever get to taste them is on a wine tasting trip.  When we find some of these wines, we leave the winery with a smile and the lingering taste of surprising wine on our lips.  Without casting aspersions on any winery, we’ve had that experience at Clos Du Val and William Hill Winery in Napa Valley.

The tasting room at Testarossa Winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

We have also had the happy experience of finding great wine in a region where we visited with low expectations.  Our best recent find in that regard was at Testarossa Winery in, of all places, California’s Silicon Valley.  There among the software we found Pinot Noirs that completely wowed us.  They are located at the northern end of the Santa Clara Valley where, we must sadly state, we found no other wines that came even close to what Testarossa can do.

Then there are the discoveries of a whole different sort that occur when we travel internationally.  Sure, we knew that places like Australia and South Africa had vineyards.  But very often the wines that are exported to the United States are of the mass production variety.  That way there is enough volume to make it worthwhile for the States-side importers to bring them here.  If you are lucky enough to discover their top-end wineries and wines before they become internationally known, you can do some fabulous tasting before the wines get terribly pricy.  Perhaps our favorite example was buying bottles of Henschke Hill of Grace in Australia for $25; today they go for $800!

The secret to making wine tasting discoveries is being open to them.  Just because you may not have heard of a region, a winery or a wine doesn’t eliminate the possibility of finding something you’ll really enjoy.  In fact, it’s the possibilities that make wine tasting such a life-long avocation.  There’s always something new – that’s why they put vintage years on the labels – and there’s always someone who’s making great stuff that we haven’t heard of.  So let’s go wine tasting and see what’s over the next hill.

Getting Care in Wine Country

We all go wine tasting for the sheer joy of it.  Alas, there are some times that our pleasure is tempered by illness or other health-related problems.  Now, we’re not talking about major issues that simply make it impossible for you to continue visiting wineries, when only a hospital will suffice.  But even in Wine Country, people get colds and allergies, or need to see a doctor of pharmacist for something minor.  This has happened to us more than a few times, so we’d like to share a few of our experiences, in hopes that our readers will benefit from them.

Photo courtesy of Farmacia Trovate.

Wine Country is full of growing things, and some of them make us sneeze and rub our eyes.  In the United States we’re never far from a CVS, a Walgreen or a Rite-Aid. (There’s a very large CVS on Trancas Street in Napa where we always seem to wind up on our trips to Napa Valley.)  Of course, we can find everything that we can at home, but these drug stores are especially important if we forget a prescription. (It’s happened a few times).  We’ve had to call our physician for an emergency prescription, or have our credit card company do it for us.  We have had some high expenses this way, because our insurance company wasn’t amused about paying for the same meds twice in a week or so.

Of course, there were special considerations when we’re buying medicines in Wine Country.  We had to be careful about pills that made us drowsy, because we were driving…and tasting wine.  The label on many medications warn not to do either of those things.

We have to double down on those problems when we’re tasting wine outside the US.  Even in countries where English is the language spoken, they don’t call over-the-counter medicines by the same name as we do.  We’ve had a headache in Australia and wanted something strong.  We looked for Advil and remembered that it’s properly called ibuprofen.  We got dull looks when we asked for either of those names until a friendly pharmacist remembered that ibuprofen in Australia is called Nurofen.

And where English isn’t spoken it’s even more difficult.  We had a little nagging cough in Chianti.  We had to figure out how to say “cough drops” in Italian.  In this little village, there was no internet connectivity to look up the translation.  “Coffo” didn’t work.   Finally, a little forced cough and pantomiming the drops got us a box.  (It’s “tosse” in Italian, by the way.)  If there were any counterindications, there was no way we were going to know.  By the way, if you’re visiting France, the French word for cough is “toux” and cough drop is “pastille”.

If you ever need a doctor or a dentist on short notice, most hotels keep a list of nearby practitioners who can help out-of-towners.  There are also emergency rooms, of course, but they’re not going to help if, as happened to us, a  tooth filling came out.  But the nice people at our hotel contacted a dentist.  The next morning we were patched up and back on our way to sample the fines wines in that region.

Choucroute in Alsace

If you are going wine tasting in the easternmost part of France, you’ll be in Alsace, where they grow white wine grapes, mostly Riesling and Gewürztraminer.  Now, those are German grapes, which is fitting because over the centuries Alsace has gone back and forth from being a part of Germany to being a part of France.  It’s been French since the end of the First World War, but was German for 50 years before that.

The principal city of Alsace is Strasbourg.  It looks very German in its architecture, but the feeling there is joie de vivre, not gemütlichkeit.  Alsace generally and Strasbourg in particular feel like Germany with French people.  And the food is a blend of the two as well.  There is the expression “to be stuffed like a Strasbourg goose”, perhaps because that’s how you get fois gras, the emperor of all patés.  The dish that Alsace is best known for, though, is a mixture of sauerkraut and smoked meats called choucroute.

Photo courtesy of Food and Wine.

Chou is French for cabbage.  Put that together with the “kraut” in sauerkraut and you get choucroute.  Today you can find this dish on menus all over France, especially in the cooler months and there are places in Paris and Lyon that make it very well.  But the best is in Alsace, where it was born, and the best of the best is to be found in Strasbourg.  Which restaurant?  That’s like asking where’s the best pizza in Brooklyn: Everywhere!

It’s made of sauerkraut that’s baked for hours and towards the end adding the meats. At one time or another, we’ve experienced smoked ham, pork chops, frankfurters, Alsatian sausage, Toulouse sausage, Polish kielbasa, knockwurst, bratwurst, weisswurst, thickly sliced bacon, ham hocks and other meats we weren’t exactly sure about.  Some people consider juniper berries to be an essential ingredient but we don’t agree with those people.  There are always a few boiled potatoes and lots of Dijon mustard on the side.

On Alsatian menus you’ll also find choucroute fruit de mer, or sauerkraut with seafood, a combination that never really appealed to us.  Salmon, haddock, mussels, shrimp, lobster and langoustines replace the smoked meats.  It’s something to try once.

Our experiences with choucroute in France all involve overeating.  It’s impossible not to.  First of all, any respectable restaurant will pile up the sauerkraut on your plate.  Figure a pound per person and you’re just getting started.  Then all those meats!  Each one is so delicious but cumulatively they’re way too much to finish.  Of course, the chef could just serve you less, but instead they tempt you with Choucroute Royale, which just means the basic dish, with more of everything.  It’s enough for a family of four and you’re supposed to finish it yourself!

Because of its place of origin, most people drink Alsatian wines with choucroute or a beer.   Our opinion as wine lovers is that a hearty red wine goes best.


Taking Wine Back Home

It happens so often.  You’re on vacation in Wine Country and you taste a wine that’s just so good.  You must buy some to have as a souvenir of your wonderful trip.  The bottle gets carefully packed in your checked luggage and stored in that special place you have for your best wines.  It’s being saved for a special occasion.  But when that day comes, you open the bottle and…meh.  “What was I thinking?” you ask yourself while you finish the bottle in disappointment.

You hear people say, “This wine just doesn’t travel”.  Malarkey!  That may be true for a well-aged Bordeaux that has accumulated a lot of sediment, but not for a new release that you try at most wineries.

What happened, and what can you do about it?

  • Everything is better on vacation. When you go wine tasting, you become enthralled with the beauty of the vineyards, the friendliness of the server, the elegance of the tasting room, the beautiful weather, some of the above, all of the above.  Your dining room table is very nice, but it can’t compare to the emotional pull of a long-remembered vacation.  The best advice is not to try to remember what the wine was like back then and to enjoy if for what it is now.  But if you must, try to recreate the memory of that special time.  Talk about it, especially with your Significant Other who shared that experience with you.  The memory won’t make the wine taste better but it might make you feel better about it.

Vinho verde.  Photo courtesy of

  • It’s not the same wine anymore. When you tasted that wine, it was young.  If you’ve stored it for a couple of years, it has changed.  Some wines improve with age, but there are many that don’t.  Most Portuguese vinho verde shouldn’t see its second birthday.  A lot of Zinfandels are meant to be drunk when released.  If your save-for-a-special-occasion wine is like one of those, you might want to have that occasion shortly after you arrive back home.
  • You waited too long. Sometimes a bottle just seems to find a spot in the rack that you don’t notice.  Years go by, other purchases are made and then one day you find that special bottle, almost forgotten.  Did it bake in the summers gone by?  Has it reached and passed its peak?  It’s not a bad idea to let some wines age, but it’s a very good idea to remember that you have something special and not let it pass its time.
  • It may be even better than you remember. As noted above, with time it’s not the same as the wine you tasted. If you bought well and stored the wine well, time can often smooth out some roughness and give deep-seated flavors a chance to emerge and reach their peak.  When that happens, revel in the experience and remember the day you bought it.  It’s days like those that make wine tasting so special.

Staying Home

Like everyone else, we’re staying home. Yes, we go out for walks around the neighborhood and in the park across the street.  But there are still too many people about and not enough of them are wearing masks.  So mostly we’re indoors.  Here are some wine-related activities we’re engaging in (different than usual in some respects) that you might be doing as well.  And please send your ideas for other blues-chasers to or leave a comment here.

  • Zoom happy hours Since we can’t get together with friends, we do it virtually. We held a Passover-commencing event, with red wine in hand.  A few days later, it was an Easter family gathering (in French) with a Champagne toast.   We all wondered why we didn’t do that more often.  We’re setting up two-on-two happy hours now with friends far and wide.  Yes, we know all about the potential security problems with Zoom, but we haven’t experienced them.  If Beijing wants to listen in to our friendly conversations, we can live with that.
  • Raiding the stash We suppose that most Power Tasting readers always have some wine at home and they’ve put aside a few bottles that they consider “special occasion” wine. With Passover and Easter in the past month, there were a few occasions that were indeed special.  But then there were evenings that were, well, just Tuesdays or Thursdays.  We’d make a little nicer meal and open one of those stashed-away bottles.  It’s hard to feel celebratory these days, but a great wine does dull the pain.

Photo courtesy of The Spruce Eats

  • Pizza night We sorely miss going to restaurants, and we bet you do, too. A lot of our favorites said they’d be open for pickup and delivery. That doesn’t seem to be working out too well for them, so they’ve stopped.  But pizzerias have always had a delivery business, so some but not all are still going.  We’ve been ordering on Friday evenings.  Some of the pizza places in our neighborhood have wine as well, so we order from them, if only to help their revenue a bit more.  One had a pretty good Nero d’Avola, so we bought a few extra bottles before they stopped delivering.  Another had a pretty poor Primitivo; we’ll stick with our own wine the next time.
  • Having an occasional digestif Cognac and Armagnac are wines, so to speak, if you push the boundaries of drinks made from grapes rather far. Whiskey and Rum would be wine if grapes grew where they make these liquors.
  • Ordering more The California wineries depend heavily on tasting room traffic for their profitability. Without us wine tasters stopping by, they’re not doing as well.  We’re getting a lot of sales phone calls from our wine clubs, and even from some wineries we have visited but are not members.  We’re doing our bit by joining another club and buying a bit more than usual.

Crus Bourgeois

When we were young(er) and just beginning to enjoy wine, we thought there were only two sorts of wine: Bordeaux and other.  Now, we still love a good Bordeaux and the best of them are among the world’s finest.  We knew about the Classified Growths from the 1855 survey but they became more and more expensive, so we drank less of them.  And we also recognize that there is a lot of wonderful wine from other countries and regions in France.

Then we discovered the Crus Bourgeois.  These are red wines from the Médoc region, which means that St. Emilion and Pomerol, as well as other Right Bank regions are not included.  As far back as the 15th century, these wines were produced on properties of the middle classes, meaning the merchant class, from the cities (or bourgs).  The nobility had their grand vineyards and could charge premier prices; the bourgeois were happy just to make and sell good wine.

But the designation became so widely used that there was no reason at one time to believe that a cru bourgeois was any more than plonk.  So several times in the 20th century the growers tried to bring some order to the confusion.  In 2003, there was a classification with three levels: just plain Crus Bourgeois, then Supérieur and Exceptionnel.  That top tier had only nine châteaux, many of them considered the equivalent (or better) of some Classified Growths.  To say the least, the list was controversial and was dropped in 2007 in favor of just one level.

In 2016, they tried again.  They returned to the three levels and judged the wines over a five-year period, beginning in 2018.  Fairly rigorous standards were published ( ) and the list was announced this year.  Sadly, none of the Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels from 2003 participated, so such favorites of ours as Chasse-Spleen, Haut-Marbuzet and Ormes de Pez aren’t there.

The selection criteria are rather interesting and are indicative of the direction of the marketplace.  Of course, the Cru Bourgeois wines have to meet criteria of taste and aroma.  An anonymous blind tasting panel makes the initial cut at what is and is not a Cru Bourgeois.  In order to qualify as a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur or Exceptionnel, there are additional considerations.  They have to do with the sustainability of the agriculture in the vineyards and winery.  They also deal with management’s actions “to optimize the character of the wine (vineyard, harvest, winery, bottling, quality assurance system)”.

A real eye-opener for those of us who might travel to Bordeaux for wine tasting, one of the criteria for the advanced designations is the “quality of reception of visitors”.  In other words, to be a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, these wineries must offer an exceptional experience for those who come to sample the wine in their tasting rooms.  Of course, we at Power Tasting are delighted with this development.  The “quality of reception” is an expression of a winery’s attitude towards their customers, not least the ones who care enough to come to visit.  The fact that the way they treat wine tasters can affect a wine’s recognition and sales, shows again that wine tasters can affect the market for wine.


Atmosphere: Party Time

This article is the first of what will be an irregular series on how the atmosphere at a winery and its tasting room influences the wine tasting experience, your appreciation of the wines, and the impressions you keep when you look back on your visit and the wines you tried.  We may overstate the case occasionally to make a point, but our thoughts on the subject are drawn from years of experience.

There are sectors of Wine Country where the reason to go seems more to party down than to gain an understanding of the products made there.  Some of these are in up-and-coming areas that attract a lot of young people.  In that regard, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone and many Long Island wineries, both especially on the weekends, come to mind.  But we have come across this same atmosphere in older, more established regions, such as Napa Valley, as well.

Long Island’s Winery Dogs.  Photo courtesy of CrypticRock.

What are the hallmarks of a party winery?  The most prominent seems to be rock or rap music, played very loud.  On Long Island’s North Fork, there are quite a few wineries that feature live bands on the weekend.  And they’re not top tier either; more likely they’re the local bar band.

Another clue is pizza by the pool.  There are some wineries that have pizza ovens on premises and others that let a pizza truck pull up outside.  We have nothing against either pizza or swimming pools.  In fact, we like both very much. But not with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, which may cost more than $100 a bottle, in our hands and with the noise around us.

And that’s the point: No company that’s serious about its product should cheapen its brand.  The wines appropriate for a party atmosphere are light, fruity and refreshing.  They are in the league of what you might expect to drink in a bar where the choice is only red or white.  We all drink them from time to time, but we wouldn’t make a special trip to try them.  For those who do, the objective is the party, not the wine.

It saddens us when we come across wineries that make high-quality wines (at top prices) that act more like hosts than winemakers.  As we understand it, they think it helps them to differentiate themselves in a crowded tourist market.  But as a representative of Long Island’s Pellegrini Vineyards told us, “No one stands out if they all do it.  We’d prefer to differentiate ourselves on our wine.”

If you are interested in discovering great wine and instead you discover that a party has broken out, there are several things you can do.  One would be to get back in the car and go elsewhere, but then you might miss some fine wines.  But are you really missing them if you can’t enjoy them as they deserve?  We submit that great wine just doesn’t taste the same when there is extraneous distraction all around.

Perhaps there are some quiet corners of a tasting room where you can sip your wine in peace.  That does work, but it is likely that service will be slower, because the personnel are taking care of the party crowd.

Another tactic is to avoid visiting on weekends, which isn’t a bad idea on its own merits.  Many of the wineries only get the party going then, so peace and quiet prevail the rest of the week.  In some cases, even on weekdays the music is loud and the pizza is available, but the partiers aren’t there so it’s not as bad.

We assure you that if you do visit one of these party palaces, it will be the party you remember years from now, not the wine.




Visiting Napa/Noma in September

In Wine Country, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, September is a glorious month, the time when all of a year’s work comes to fruition.  It is a beautiful month; the hot summer days are gone and comfortable weather is there to enjoy long walks and outings.

In Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which we refer to as Napa/Noma, you will see pickers in the vineyards filling baskets with grapes.  Huge harvesters will be gathering grapes on an industrial scale.  And even though the wineries are open for tastings, you will see people scurrying to fulfill the hundreds of tasks that change grapes into juice into wine.

Destemming the grapes before they get crushed.

As visitors, you get to share in the excitement without the necessity of doing any hard work.  Many wineries curtail tours during the crush, primarily for reasons of safety as well as keeping tourists out of the way of the workers.  What you see in the vineyards reminds you that wine is agriculture; in the working parts of the wineries, you remember that wine is industry, too.

There are advantages to visiting Napa/Noma in September other than observing the harvest.  The weather is foremost among them.  It can still be quite warm, especially in the earlier weeks of the month.  You can plan on taking a dip in the pool after a day’s tastings.  However, the mornings can be cool and damp and it’s a good idea to have a sweater in your bag, because temperatures sometimes cool off in the evenings.

And speaking of evenings, the late summer/early autumn sunsets come in right about aperitif time.  Sitting on a terrace or by the pool with a glass of local wine just adds to the pleasures of being in Napa/Noma.

There are fewer cars on the roads, particularly Napa Valley’s Route 29, because many of the summer vacationers are back at work.  That means fewer little children in the tasting rooms, as well.  On the other hand, the harvesters and the bins carrying grapes to the crushers use the same roads as the cars, so traffic can still get backed up.

In the first weeks of September, you’ll see the vines heavy with grapes.  You can even – shh, don’t tell – sneak a grape to taste.  You’ll find that wine grapes are far sweeter than any fruit you’re likely taste at the supermarket.  Alas, by the end of the month, you may have to keep your eyes peeled to see any laden vines left.

For the most part, restaurants and tasting rooms are still pretty busy in September, especially on the weekends.  Hotel rooms are somewhat difficult to find, too, since so many people want to be in Napa/Noma for the crush.  It’s best to book a room well in advance.  You’ll be able to get a table for dinner on the same day, but if there’s a place you’re particularly eager to try it’s best to make an advance reservation.

The wines taste the same in February as they do in September and you might even find more of a selection of wines to taste early in the year.  But for real wine lovers, there is a certain thrill to tasting wine as it is being made that can’t be experienced as well at any other time of year.

Stormy Weather Tasting

When you think of Napa Valley or when you see pictures of it, the skies are always blue and the sun is always shining.  One of the beauties of California is the great weather, but that’s not always the case.  Mornings in Napa Valley are often foggy and a bit chilly.  There are rainy days in the vineyards, too, or there wouldn’t be any grapes from which to make wine.

For sure, it’s a bit disappointing to go on a wine tasting trip when the weather is poor.  We have been in Napa Valley when the temperature was in the 20s, when there were floods and when rain came down in buckets.  It wasn’t what we were hoping for but it was what we got.  And there were some advantages.


The view from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ windows, when the sun pierced the clouds for a few minutes.

For one thing, there is a gloomy beauty in seeing the vineyards shrouded in mist.  There is always the chance that the sun will poke through if only for a few minutes.  The vines (even without leaves and grapes) are quite dramatic against grey skies.

The great advantage, though, is that fewer people go wine tasting on cold, rainy days.  So a nasty Thursday in December, for example, has its own charms.  There are fewer people in the tasting rooms and you get more attention from the servers.  Often you get more wine as well.  After all, the servers have nothing to do except wait for visitors.  When you show up, they’re happy to see you and maybe pour a smidgen more of this and open a bottle of that.  As always, you need to be polite and inquisitive; servers have no more interest in jerks on rainy days than on sunny ones.  But when there are fewer people around, the servers may think, “Well, that bottle of the 1998 Cab is open anyway so why not give it to these nice people who braved the weather to come to our winery”.

The Robert Mondavi winery.

Perhaps even more important is that if you are served by a true wine educator, you will have so much more of an experience.  Sure, anyone can tell you the grapes and the vintages – they’re written on the bottle.  But a server who knows a thing or two will explain about the growing conditions that year, how one vintage stacks up against the others or about the different vineyards where the grapes were sourced.  If you’re not interested in those sorts of things, it’s quite probable that you won’t be make the trip to Napa Valley in the rain anyway.

Likewise, other visitors whom you do meet in a tasting room are likely to be as interested (and interesting) as you are.  Vivid conversations and shared observations tend to come to like-minded people.

In lousy weather, the roads are less crowded.  There are more tables available at the better restaurants, even without reservations.  And if you like hearty cooking, there’s a better chance you’ll find roasts and stews on the menus at these times.  Save your California cuisine fol-de-rol for sunny summer days; you’ll get real meals when the thermometer drops.

Visiting Napa/Noma in May

They say that the month of May is merry.  We can’t vouch for that, but we do know that it is an excellent time to visit Napa/Noma.  (Not to say that the other months aren’t excellent in their own ways.)  This is the time of year that the vines are flowering and getting ready to set the fruit that will be crushed in September.  It is also a time when many vineyards release their new wines for sale, so there’s a lot to taste.

A grape vine in bloom.  Photo courtesy of Jordan Winery.

 Another very important benefit of visiting Napa Valley and Sonoma County in May is that the Big Heat has not yet arrived (although global climate change is pushing the heat sooner in the year) while the crisp coolness is out of the air.  That’s not to say you won’t encounter chilly, humid, misty mornings; these happen all year long in this sector of Wine Country.  Almost dependably, however, by around 10:30 the mist lifts and you are greeted by glorious sunshine.

Weekends, particularly Mothers and Memorial Day weekends, can be very crowded in the Napa/Noma tasting rooms and the roads leading to them.  If possible, avoid Route 29 in Napa Valley.  Sonoma County, being more spread out, doesn’t have quite the traffic problem that is found in Napa but Route 101 is likely to be more backed up.  On the weekends, it’s a very good idea to make reservations for tastings in the top wineries you might be interested in.  Another idea is to use these days for in-town tastings in Napa, Yountville or Healdsburg.

Springtime vineyards. Photo courtesy of TripSavvy.

The farm-to-fork restaurants that abound in Napa/Noma find themselves with fresh local ingredients again in May.  It’s not the same as the bonanza of fruits and vegetables that will come during the summer, but it is time to say goodbye to root vegetables and preserved fruits in favor of products right off the vine.  (No, not grape vines.  That comes later.)

If you can find the time to go wine tasting during the week in May, you will have the advantage that in most places school is still in session.  We love little children but they really don’t belong in tasting rooms.  That’s not to say that you will find the wineries empty in May.  Far from it.  But you will be able to sip somewhat more peacefully in May than in the following month.

Figuring out what to wear in Napa/Noma in May is a bit of a puzzle.  In a local climate that has cold mornings, warm afternoons (up into the 80s) and cool evenings (down to the 50s) you may want to have a wider variety of clothes than in other times of the year.  Wearing layers makes sense, because you can put on a sweater or a jacket at one time of day and take it off as things warm up.

In song and verse, springtime is seen by many as the best season.  Why not enjoy it wine tasting in America’s foremost winemaking region?