Pinot Noir Tasting

Our experience with Pinot Noir has been rather strange.  For a long time, we just didn’t care for wines made from this grape.  Too thin.  Too acid.  Too pricy.  We would continue tasting Pinot Noirs in our travels but we never got that kick that lovers of Burgundy wines have written and talked about.  Then on one wine tasting trip about a decade ago, the light bulb came on.

Pinot Noir grapes.  Photo courtesy of LaCrema winery.

We were in the Carneros region of Napa Valley at the Etude winery.  They’re equally well-known for their Cabernet Sauvignons as for their Pinot Noirs, so it was our intent to savor the big California boomers.  Since Pinot Noir was included in the tasting, why not try it?  That was the moment that changed everything; we became club members from that moment and still are.

On that trip and since then, we have been all over Carneros and have found many other wineries specializing in Pinot Noir.  Saintsbury and Domaine Carneros (yes, the same maker of California sparkling) are particular favorites.  But we have expanded our horizons.  We were dining at the late, lamented Hurley’s restaurant in Yountville and they had a weekly special wine from a place we’d never heard of, Santa Lucia Highlands.  Another aha moment and we’ve been buying wines from there ever since.

We’ve enjoyed Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills near Santa Barbara, from Russian River and Sebastopol in Sonoma County, and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  We enjoyed them in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or quite a while ago, but then seemingly lost our taste for them (and regained it, too).  To this day, we prefer California Pinot Noirs to the originals from France.  That may have something to do with the astronomical prices for grand cru Burgundies.

So were we wrong in the days when Pinot Noir didn’t appeal to us?  Not really, but did our taste change or did the wines?  To this day, we find some very well-regarded wines from Russian River and Green Valley in Sonoma County to be thin, acid and overpriced, just as we did in the past.  As you can read in our opening statement on Power Tasting’s front page, tasters need to know what they like.  That implies that we need to know what we don’t like, as well.

In general, we go for more robust Pinot Noirs, so some wine educators have told us that we want wines made for Bordeaux drinkers.  There’s probably a little truth in that, but we think it misses the point.  There are Cabernet Sauvignons that we don’t care for (and Syrahs, and Chardonnays, and Tempranillos and, and, and…) and many others that we love.  We always appreciate well-made wines that respect the nature of the grapes and reflect the hand of capable winemakers.

We don’t want a Pinot Noir that’s like a Cabernet Sauvignon.  We like Pinot Noirs that show the complexity of the grape, with subtle aromas and some deep notes that accompany the overall roundness that Pinot Noir can achieve.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Visiting Sonoma County

For many bygone years, a wine tasting trip in California meant travelling to Napa Valley.  Oh, we knew there were vineyards on the other side of the Mayacamas range in Sonoma County.  And occasionally we’d drive over the Oakville Grade and emerge on Route 12 in the Sonoma Valley region.  We’d visit a few nearby wineries and then scamper back to the familiarity of Napa Valley.  No disrespect to Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn or Arrowood (our most frequent Route 12 visits) but we were missing an awful lot of what Sonoma County has to offer the wine enthusiast.

In the late ‘90’s we decided to dedicate an entire trip to Sonoma County.  It was very different then, much more rustic with simple wineries and not many places to eat.  Even though the main road is a highway (Route 101), Sonoma County’s Wine Country is vast.  Not knowing where we were going nor what we liked, we spent a lot of time driving from one winery we had heard something about to another and wasting a lot of time getting from place to place.

The view in front of the Stonestreet winery in Alexander Valley.

We’ve learned that the smartest plan is to visit one region per day.  Fortunately, there is a fairly consistent mapping of grape varietals with specific regions, so we have a good idea of the type of wine we’d be trying each day.  For example, Sonoma Valley was and is all about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and so are Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley.  If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, you should head straight to Russian River and Green Valley.  And while you’ll find Zinfandel everywhere, they specialize in it in Dry Creek and Rockpile.  Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are everywhere.

Old Zinfandel vines in Dry Creek Valley.

There are three towns where you’ll find most of the restaurants and hotels: Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.  If you did nothing but visit the main squares in each, and sip in the tasting rooms there, you’d have a pretty nice visit to Sonoma County.  All the same, we recommend that you get out into the countryside.

There are still plenty of wineries that are reminders of the way the county used to be.  They’re small, out of the way and their tasting rooms are nothing fancy.  Some have wines that are probably not worth being on the top of your list, but we have chanced upon more than a few that have been favorites of ours for many years.  It’s a good idea occasionally to let serendipity be your guide and try some wines you’ve never heard of.

At the other extreme, there are quite a few wineries in Sonoma County that have deservedly great reputations and should be considered for your visit.  Among these are Jordan, Verité, Rochioli, Martinelli, Ridge and Chalk Hill (including their Chardonnay).  Even before the pandemic, may of these were by appointment only, so check before you go.

Sonoma County may have once been Napa Valley’s little brother (at least in the opinion of the Napans).  In no way is that true today.  You can taste, dine, sleep and tour just as well in both these sectors of Wine Country.  There are many similarities, which is why we term them both together as Napa/Noma.  But Sonoma has a distinct personality in its wine, geography and attitude.  It’s a destination in itself.

The Experience of Wine Tasting in Bordeaux and Napa Valley

It’s impossible to draw meaningful comparisons between wine tasting in France and California.  They’re both too large with too many wine growing regions to be able to say anything about one place without having a counterexample from another.  So let’s narrow the scope of the comparison to the two premier winemaking regions in each.  That would be Napa Valley and Bordeaux, although the people of Burgundy might make a claim as well.

We suppose that there were people who traveled to both regions for wine tasting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can only speak to the wine tasting experiences of the last quarter of the 20th century onward.

Let’s stipulate a few differences up front.  They speak French in Bordeaux; their history goes back thousands of years and the restaurants all serve French food.  In Napa Valley, they speak English (and a lot of Spanish); the history there is hundreds of years old and the restaurants there serve cuisines from all around the world.

Château Palmer in Margaux, in the Medoc.  Photo courtesy of The Drinks Business.

Both are beautiful, but in different ways.  Napa Valley has a broad lowland with mountain ranges on both sides.  Bordeaux has three major vineyard areas: Macon on the left bank of the Garonne River, Pomerol/St. Emilion on the right bank and Graves/Sauternes south of the city of Bordeaux.  It’s easy to drive the length of Napa Valley in a few hours.  You need a few days to see all of Bordeaux.

Franciscan winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley.

Napa Valley’s wineries have evolved from farmhouses to what we term Napa Palaces.  In Bordeaux they have real palaces, or at least châteaux.  There are few if any rustic wineries left in Napa Valley.  In Bordeaux many of the smaller producers don’t have the magnificent castles that the famous names have, although they all seem to call themselves Château This or Domaine That.

In our earliest travels to both, it was a simple matter of driving up to a winery and asking for a taste of their wines.  If money ever changed hands it was only a few dollars; in Napa Valley they would throw in a free glass.  There are still some places where walk-in tastings are available in Napa Valley.  Those in Bordeaux are generally lower quality houses, mostly in the town of St. Emilion.  The better Bordeaux tastings have long since been by appointment only.  This trend was apparent in Napa Valley too, prior to the pandemic.  Now it’s more of a general rule.

In Bordeaux, a tasting means blends featuring either Cabernet Sauvignon (Macon and Graves) or Merlot (St. Emilion).  There are some whites, most based on Semillon grapes.  Napa Valley tastings offer much greater variety: all the Bordeaux grapes, and those of Burgundy and the Rhône.

The wineries in Napa Valley are closer to one another.  You can easily visit five or six wineries and not travel more than a mile.  That’s just not the case in Bordeaux.  On the other hand, traffic is much worse in Napa Valley (especially on Route 29) than on the main roads in Bordeaux.

So finally, which region makes better wine?  That’s a question often debated at our dinner table and it has not yet been resolved.  You’d better decide for yourself.

Just Stopping By

For most people, travelling to Wine Country is a trip, one that often involves a flight and a rather lengthy drive.  If you’re going to go through all that, you surely want to justify your exertions by visiting several wineries, if only to get a feel for what that region can make.  However, some fortunate people live close enough to a wine-producing area that they can spend a few hours wine tasting whenever they want.  Or they can just stop by a winery for an easygoing half-hour or so, with some nice wine to add to the pleasure.

If you happen to be among those happy few, you may already have taken advantage of nearby wineries.  We have met some people in our wine tasting adventures who have told us that they live so close that they often hop on their bikes and come over on particularly pleasant weekend afternoons for a taste or two.

As residents of New York City, we can’t take advantage of “just stopping by” wine tasting.  Even a trip to Long Island’s North Fork entails at least two hours on the expressway.  But on a few occasions, we have had the chance to be the “locals”.

A vineyard in the Île d’Orleans.

We have a home in Québec City, which is a fairly populous metropolis.  But it’s also only minutes away from the Île d’Orleans, which is unquestionably countryside, the source of much of the fruits and vegetables for the city.  It is also the home to a half dozen wineries.  Many a summer weekend we drive over to the island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River to buy corn and tomatoes or just to breath some rustic air.  It’s no big deal for us to stop by and try a glass or two at one of the wineries.  To be honest, none of the table wines are particularly notable, but some of the ice wines (it gets awfully icy in Québec) are quite good.

Etude Winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

A few years ago, business required us to spend a few months living in Sacramento, only an hour from Napa Valley in one direction and Amador County in the other.  There were of course some weekends when we visited multiple wineries, with others when had non-wine reasons to be in Napa Town.  The road back to Sacramento took us right by Etude Winery, one of our favorites, where we are members of their wine club.  The servers became used to us stopping by for a few pours of their top wines, which we enjoyed in big Adirondack chairs on their terrace.

Finally, we once took a lengthy vacation in the Languedoc.  When it was market day in the village of St. Chinian, we’d drive in for our pain and fromage. And as long as we were there, why not stop by a winery?

If you are or ever will be that close to Wine Country, make sure you just stop by a vineyard or two.

Fields of Lavender

The Southern Rhône is in Provence, which is famous for many things, notably wine, of course.  Then there are food, sunshine, an easygoing joie de vivre, and the people with their beautiful Provençal accent that is unique in France.   It is also a center of perfume production and much of that perfume is made from a flower characteristic of the region: lavender.

If you are coming to taste wine in Provence at the right time of the year, the late spring and through mid-summer, you will have the added attraction of seeing lavender growing in the fields. You may catch a few buds in April and there are stragglers in the fields after the main harvest in the middle of July, but the radiance of the fields in full bloom is a reason to visit in the prime months.

Lavender fields in front of the village of Grignan, in the Drôme Provençale.  Photo courtesy of Complete France.

Much as with grape vines, lavender is planted in orderly rows, so that it appears that fields and hillsides are striped in purple.  Of course we call that shade of purple by the name of the flower, but lavender takes on different hues, depending on the time of day.  In the hazy sun of morning, the plants are almost pink in hue.  In full sunlight, it takes on the light violet color we associate with lavender.  If you see the fields in the waning light of early evening, the plants appear to be a deep blue purple.

The scent of lavender hanging over the villages cannot be adequately described in words.  This indescribable fragrance envelopes you, leads you on, holds you back, entices, seduces and ultimately leaves you with a wistful smile that lingers in your memory.  If it is hard to summon the notion of a village embraced in this aroma, it is impossible to communicate the idea of an entire region smelling of lavender.

Processing lavender at the Distillerie Bleu-Provence.  Photo courtesy of Drôme Sud Provence.

You ought to visit the Drôme Provençale, where you’ll find the charming villages of Nyons and Grignan with its château. You can take a tour of the Distillerie Bleu-Provence and see how they process the flowers into lavender oil.  You will also enjoy a tasting of lavender tea and of course visit their attractive shop.

Our Provençal friends in Nyons have told us that they rub their arms and legs with lavender oil in the hot summer to avoid mosquito bites.  It certainly smells better than what we find here in the US.

Even if you miss the high season, there are lavender products available in all the Provencal towns throughout the year.  In almost every gift shop, you can find dried flowers, cosmetics, bottles of oils and tablecloths with lavender design.  Lavender is sometimes mixed in herbes de provence and there are those who sprinkle the flowers on salads.

We like to think that some of the aroma of lavender finds its way into the more delicate wines of the southern Rhône.  Search for it the next time you open a Côtes du Rhône.

Green Wine Tastes Good

Of course, we don’t mean wine that’s green in color.  Nor red wine with heavy accents of green pepper; those don’t taste good at all.  Nor the vinho verde of Portugal, whose green-ness means that it is young.  We are talking about wines made using sustainable agricultural methods and in many cases eschewing pesticides, fertilizer and additives.  When we visit wineries around the world to try some of their wines, we know nothing about their farming practices and not much more about how their wines are made.  To be honest, we don’t care.  What’s important to us is what’s in our glasses.

But with a little bit of contemplation, we do realize that what the farmers are doing contributes to our enjoyment and in several ways to our enjoyment in the future.  If they don’t care for the land there won’t be wine from their fields in years to come.  If they aren’t respectful of the climate, they may not even have any wine this year; the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties are proof of that.

The best agricultural practices would be unavailing if the wine weren’t good.  Our experience tells us that when the vineyard manager and the winemaker collaborate on sustainable and sanitary winemaking, the results are worth the effort.  Simply put, making wine well produces well-made wine.  While we are unaware of any scientific evidence in support of this proposition, we do have a lot of anecdotal support.

For example, the Famille Perrin Côtes-du-Rhône Réserve Rouge is a widely available, inexpensive red wine.  It’s the kind of wine found on many a French table every night (and ours, from time to time).  The same house also produces a Côtes-du-Rhône Nature for a few dollars more.  It’s only recently available in the United States, but we have tasted and compared the two wines in Québec and it is clear that the Nature is far superior.

The indicator of biodynamic certification

Perhaps not coincidentally, Perrin also owns Tablas Creek Vineyard in California’s Paso Robles.  They are proud to declare that they are certified as biodynamic and organic winemakers.  According to their web site, Tablas Creek uses:

“a mobile flock of 150+ sheep and alpacas to weed and fertilize the vineyard, interplantings of hundreds of fruit trees around and within the vineyards, compost made on site from prunings and grape must, applications of compost tea from the on-site compost, natural pest controls including 39 owl boxes around the vineyard and sections of native vegetation left to attract insects and predators, and our own hives of bees to support all these different plant species”.

Now, we’re not quite sure how much difference sheep, bees and owls contribute to the winemaking process.  But we are certain that, to our taste, Tablas Creek makes the best Rhône-style wines in Paso Robles.

We believe that specific farming and winemaking practices are not in themselves the reasons why being eco-friendly results in better-tasting wine.  It requires more attention to detail, to sanitation, to taking good care of the environment in the field and in the factory.  This seriousness of purpose finds its way into the bottle and ultimately into our mouths.  This is no secret formula, but it does taste like it works.



Visiting Napa/Noma in September

This article concludes Power Tasting’s irregular series on visiting Napa Valley and Sonoma County (“Napa/Noma”) in each of the months of the year.  So many people ask when the best time would be, and the answer is always the same: There is no best time.  Every month has its charms and its drawbacks.  If you’d like to read all of the series, scroll way down on the masthead on the left of on our Welcome page and click on Months.

One thing differentiates a visit to Napa/Noma in September from all the other months: the harvest is in full flight every day.  There are plusses and minuses to that fact.  There are some things that you can only see and do if you are there for The Crush, as they call it.  On the other hand, there are some things that you might want to see and do that are more difficult when the harvest is on.

Carneros in September, between Napa and Sonoma Counties.

If you want to get a visceral understanding of the industrial process that is winemaking, you can surely do that in September.  Just drive around a bit and you’ll find workers in the vineyards picking grapes, loading them in baskets and dumping the fruit into trucks.  However, just as often these days, you’ll see giant harvesters doing the job without hand laborers.  You’re more likely to see the manual process at the vineyards producing more expensive wines; the cost of labor is a factor in the price.  But the quality also comes from selective picking.

Making wine at Saintsbury.

Some wineries process the grapes in outdoor facilities.  Easiest to find are the sorting and de-stemming operations.  You may very well not get to see the actual crushing and maceration of the wine.  These are industrial processes and the last thing winemakers need is a crowd of tourists trying to figure out what’s going on.  You may find that winery tours available the rest of the year are not available during the week or two that the harvest is on.

Because so many people do want to visit during this time of the year, hotel rooms are harder to get and more expensive when you do.  Restaurants also tend to fill up sooner because of all the tourists, but fewer tables are taken by locals, many of whom are exhausted from making wine.

As elsewhere, the beginning of the month is still summer, while autumn rolls in at the end.  But California stays warmer for longer than other places, sometimes much warmer for much longer.  Sadly, one of the considerations about visiting Napa/Noma in September is the possibility that wildfires will erupt.  In 2020, the biggest of the Napa fires began in late September and lasted into October.  But in Sonoma County, the fires began in August.  In 2017, they occurred in October in both locations.  There is no reason to think that wild fires will happen, but plenty of reason to think they might.  This has to be part of your travel planning in these perilous times.

Whatever the issues, it’s a lot of fun to see The Crush.  That’s a powerful reason to visit Napa/Noma in September.

Memories of the Barossa Valley

There are sections of Wine Country that we return to over and over: California, France, Italy, Long Island among them.  We suspect that many wine tasting enthusiasts focus on these and other popular destinations.  And then there are the wine making areas that are near cities where life just happens to take us.  It has been many years since we visited Australia’s Barossa Valley, because we had some work in nearby Adelaide, only 45 minutes away.  We’re sure that much has changed in the interim, but some things have remained the same.

The Barossa Valley, among the most beautiful wine-producing regions in the world.  Photo courtesy of TrailHopper

We are certain that they still drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  If driving while wine tasting concerns you, then doing everything backwards won’t ease your worries.  Maybe this is the occasion to take a tour. (We were hosted and chauffeured by a business colleague, so as they say there, “No worries, mate”.)

A distinctive feature of the Barossa Valley is its German heritage.  Many of the wineries there sport Germanic names and a lot of the restaurants are the wurst places to go.  (Sorry about that.)  Of course, there are many people of British extraction there as well.

Barossa is famous for one grape: Shiraz.  Yes, it’s called Syrah in France and America, but Aussie Shiraz is really distinctive.  The first time we were served it by Australian friends, we thought the wine had gone bad.  Then we realized it was just different from anything we’d ever tasted before.  Of course, Australian wines are better known these days but be prepared for some eye (and mouth) opening experiences.

Wine tasting in Barossa is familiar to many Americans.  The people are friendly and welcoming and if possible even more casual than the servers in Sonoma or Paumanok.  Being Australian, they are hearty and bold, and the same can be said of their wines.  If you like power hitters, you’ll be in heaven here.

The Henschke winery tasting room.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

They are intensely proud of their wines, as they should be.  Their wineries were little known outside Australia when we were there but wines from Seppelt, Peter Lehmann, Torbreck and Wolf Blass (note all the German names) can be found in wine stores around the world.  Of course, what we get at home are the mass production wines.  You can taste some of the rather spectacular wines they keep for themselves if you visit Barossa.

Two Barossa wines can hold their own with the best in the world.  The most famous is Penfolds Grange.  Even greater, to our taste, is Henschke’s Hill of Grace. These are massive wines, 100% Shiraz and sought after by wine lovers everywhere.  Of course, they come at quite a price, north of $650 American dollars at the winery.  To give an idea how long ago we visited the Barossa Valley, we were able to pick up bottles of both at $25 American dollars, equivalent to $63 today.  Here’s to the memories.




When you are out wine-tasting, lunch is a necessity.  Don’t even think of sipping wine on an empty stomach.  Breakfast is important too, but the morning meal does not lend itself to lazy luxuriating quite as much as does lunch.  One thing that almost all wine-making regions have in common is the availability of superb cuisine.  Why travel all that way to Wine Country and deny yourself the pleasure of a leisurely meal at midday?

Caffés in Montalcino.

In Europe, you have no choice.  On that enlightened continent, a two-hour work stoppage is de rigeur, as they say over there.  So you pull into a town or stop at a French café (or an Italian caffé) surrounded by vines and do like the locals do.  We can’t open a bottle of Brunello without thinking of warm afternoons on the piazzas of Montalcino.  The same goes for St. Emilion, Greve in Chianti and Chateauneuf de Pape.

When visiting California’s sections of Wine Country, you have the option to gulp down a Big Mac and keep on tasting.  We Americans are all go-go-go and that does have some business advantage.  But if you are on a wine tasting trip, you’re not there on business (unless you’re a distributor).  Just because you can try three wineries between noon and 2:00 doesn’t mean that you should.  Not when the bistros of Calistoga, Healdsburg, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara are calling out to you.

It’s all a matter of attitude.  If you just happen to be passing through and you only have a little while available to you, then eat something quickly and then stop by at a winery or two.  But have you ever just happened to be passing through Yountville?  Or Pauillac?

Another argument is that wine tasting should be about wine and a fancy lunch is just an unnecessary use of your mouth.  If your objective is just to taste as much wine as you can in as short a time as possible – a highly dangerous goal – you’re better off picking up a few bottles at the store and staying home.  For us, at any rate, a large part of the reason to go wine tasting is to be in Wine Country, to soak it all in (not just drink it all in).  And that means eating lunch where the locals go.

Photo courtesy of the (San Jose) Mercury News.

You’ll never dine anywhere where there are no tourists, but there are many places where you can sit with people from the neighborhood and from the wineries.  That doesn’t necessarily mean white tablecloths and fine fare.  For example, if you’re tasting in St. Helena, there are few places that scream WINE COUNTRY like the original Gott’s Roadside.  Oh, there are all the attributes of the fancy places, such as locavore purveyors and Ahi tuna, but at the end of the day, it’s about the burgers.  And if you want some wine, Joel Gott makes that too.

The point is that you should make a good lunch a part of your wine tasting adventure, not a diversion from it.  Be careful how much you drink with lunch if you’re going to keep tasting all afternoon, but remember wine was made to go with food.

The Importance of Being There

It’s always fun to discover that an unknown wine from an obscure location is really pretty good.  But with all due respect to the Mavrud grapes of Bulgaria or the sparkling wines of Brazil, there’s a reason why the world beats a path to Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa Valley, Burgundy, the Rioja and Sonoma County: They’re the best.  If you want to be a knowledgeable wine taster. before you get off the beaten path, you’d better be familiar with some if not all of the premier sectors of Wine Country

What’s the big deal about being there, in the most famous locales?

For one thing, there’s a pleasure when you open a bottle in remembering what the region looked like or even better what the winery was like.  There’s nothing like the experience of touching the actual grapes (or maybe filching one to see what they’re like) when you pour what they made from them.  Except for winemakers themselves, most of us couldn’t tell a Cabernet Sauvignon grape from a Pinot Noir, but it’s fun to believe you could.  And you can only pretend to do so if you’ve actually been there to see them.

Of course, you can look at grapes anywhere they grow them.  But when you’re standing in front of Château Margaux touching the grapes (which we have done) you know that these are among the greatest grapes in the world.  You have to be there.

Château Margaux.  Photo courtesy of Forbes.

Wine is made of grapes but people make wine.  It’s a wonderful experience meeting these people in their own environment.  For the most part, they’re very nice.  And why shouldn’t they be?  You’ve come a long way to taste their wines and you chose their winery for the purpose.  If you’re serious about wine tasting – and you must be, because you’re there – they are as eager to know something about their customers as you are to engage with the winemaker.

We were in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or many years ago, having a picnic in a churchyard.  A man walked by and spotted us and came over to talk.  We thought he was going to tell us to move but, no, he wanted to see what we were drinking with lunch.  When he found that a couple from the other side of the Atlantic was having a premier cru with our jambon and baguette, he was quite pleased.  “Quelle pique-nique!”  It turned out that he owned a few rows of vines in the adjoining vineyard.  We think of him every time we open a top Burgundy.  To do that, you have to be there.

For us, wine is a beverage to accompany dinner, sometimes for meditation, a subject of eternal fascination and, in wine tasting, an avocation that has taken us to vineyards around the world.  We can and do enjoy the wine from the store around the corner, but it’s not the same experience.  The pleasure of wine tasting, as opposed to drinking, comes as much from the tastes, memories and feelings as much as from the wine itself.  And to get that experience, you have to be there.