Visiting Napa Valley for the First Time

Decades ago we visited Napa Valley for the first time.  It was a life-altering experience…well, vacation altering, at any rate.  Traveling to winemaking areas for the purpose of visiting wineries and tasting their products is an experience we have relived many times since.  Napa Valley was not only our first destination but also the one we have returned to the most often over the years.

The iconic Stag’s Leap winery in the 1970’s.  Photo courtesy of The Rainbow Times.

It is a very different experience today than it was then.  In those days, wine tasting was much more casual.  The founders of many namesake wineries were alive and pouring tastes for visitors.  The servers – owners and workers, generally – stood behind a plank stretched between two barrels and poured a few thimblefuls of wine into tiny glasses that we were urged to take home with us.  No one thought of charging for a tasting.

As first-timers, we were in awe. There were rows and rows of vines stretching, so it seemed, in all directions as far as the eye could see.  There were no Napa palaces at that time.  All the wineries were combinations of factories, warehouses and working farms, much as can be seen in less-discovered parts of the world these days.

The wines that were available for sale were a great deal less expensive.  The best in the house could be bought for ten dollars or less.  (To be fair, $10 sounded like a lot more money in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.)  Some of the wines that we bought then are still among our favorites, such as Robert Mondavi or Louis M. Martini.  (Although we never had the pleasure to meet Mr. Mondavi, Mr. Martini once served us wine.)  The cost of their top wines are now counted in the hundreds of dollars.

Stag’s Leap winery today.

We try, with some difficulty, to imagine what the experience of a first-time visitor (and novice taster) must be like today.  Almost all the founders have passed away.  Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap and Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills are approaching the century mark, but they are virtually the only ones left.  Most of the major wineries are the property of multinational corporations.  The vines are still there but the tasting facilities are in many cases “visitors centers” architected to impress.  Impressive they are, but visitors’ encounters are starkly different than ours was.

Even before the pandemic, the cost of a tasting had become rather steep in many wineries, enough to be prohibitive for tasters as young today as we were then.  Of course, the price for a glass of wine in a restaurant or bar has also increased, so wine tasting is not that out of line in dollar terms.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa wineries are available for tasting by appointment only and the price for tasting has increased tremendously.  That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.

We still have a sense of wonder when we visit sectors of Wine Country we’ve never encountered before.  And we still have a great time in Napa.  But it will never be our first time again.

Red Dessert

Often when we visit a winery and have tasted what was on the list for that day, we’ll sort of nonchalantly ask, “Do you make dessert wine?”.  Sometimes the answer is “no” and sometimes it’s “yes, but it’s not available”.  But quite often the server will reach below the bar and bring out a small slender bottle that’s full of nectar.

Wineries very rarely advertise their dessert wines for tasting for a few reasons.  These wines are usually made in low volume.  They may not be made every year.  And they tend to be rather expensive.  But they are a distinctive wine category and wine tasters should get to know them and recognize that they’re not all the same.  One obvious distinction is that some are red and some are white.  In this issue we’ll focus on the red ones.

First of all, red dessert wines are NOT just red table wines with sugar added, even if they are sometimes made from the same grapes.  The winemakers stop the fermentation before all the sugar is eaten up by yeasts, so the residual natural sugar is quite high.

Photo courtesy of Porto Running Tours.

The most famous red dessert wines are Ports.  To our way of thinking, if it doesn’t come from Portugal, it isn’t Port, no matter that some American wineries make dessert wines from Zinfandel or Pinot Noir and call it Port.  The real thing is made from grapes uniquely found in the Douro Valley, such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  It is distinctive and highly alcoholic, because it is fortified with neutral spirits.  There are many varieties of Port including from ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage (LBV) and best (and most expensive) of all vintage Port.  Take a trip to Porto and you can taste them all.  Oddly, the Portuguese don’t drink it much, but it is beloved by British academics and anyone with a sweet tooth on a wintry night.

There’s a style of red dessert wine not often found in the United States.  In France it’s called vin doux naturel or naturally sweet wine; there is no equivalent English term.  Almost all of it comes from the south of France, in Provence and Languedoc, usually from Grenache grapes.  You may be most familiar with wines known as Banyuls.  Of course, all grapes are naturally sweet, but they aren’t all processed the way these wines are.  Fermentation is stopped by the addition of some eau de vie, which stops the fermentation.  There’s less alcohol than in Port, but it still has a kick.

Finally, there are some specialty wines with long and unique histories.  For example, Recioto is made in Italy’s Valpolicella region.  It’s Amarone that’s been stopped before it’s finished.  The people of that region like dessert too, and you’d better sample it there because it’s not found that often on American wine store shelves.  Another is the Greek Mavrodaphne, which you may find in some Greek restaurants and neighborhoods, and is another fortified wine.  It may remind you of Port.


Discovering in Wine Country

When we first started going wine tasting as a recreational outing, everyplace we went, everything we tried was a discovery.  We will never forget the wonderment we felt as we drove along Route 29 in Napa Valley.  All those wineries!  Such famous wines and they come out of those buildings!  And they let you try what they make (for free in those days)!

We have recreated that feeling often in our travels and it’s always the same.  Aha, so this is really Bordeaux or Burgundy or Paso Robles or Montalcino!  In a way, it has been the same rush as we once felt on Christmas morning.  But over the years, as we have returned to our favorite corners of Wine Country, that initial thrill has given way to pleasures of familiarity, of knowing what we were going to taste and knowing that it would be good.

There is still plenty of opportunity for discovery as we make our way through Wine Country.  They never happen where you expect them to be; they always come as a surprise.

  • Discovering wine making where we didn’t expect it – There have been occasions when we were travelling for business or even on vacations where we didn’t expect to find vineyards – and suddenly we found wine making going on. Perhaps the best example of that was finding Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.  Another would be our first trip to Temecula, just north of San Diego, in a desert setting.
  • Discovering new wineries in familiar locations – This kind of discovery is the exact opposite of the one above. How many times had we been to Sonoma County’s Russian River AVA?  More than we can remember, but although we had driven past Baciagalupi Vineyards and Moshin Winery many times, we had never stopped there.  These small, out of the way wineries, and others like them, sometimes produce wonderful wines (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in these cases) and reward a little adventurousness.

William Hill Winery.  

  • Discovering new wines at familiar wineries – Of course, many American wineries are producing new offerings all the time, but we don’t consider a new wine at Robert Mondavi or Etude to be true discoveries. But there have been cases in which we have given a winery that we know produced widely sold commercial wines and were well surprised to discover some excellent offerings in a surprisingly pleasant location that we’d never seen before.  William Hill Winery and Clos du Val fall into this category.
  • Discovering that winery you hadn’t appreciated in the past had returned to form – Often when there is a change of ownership or winemaker, a winery that we had liked had disappointed us. It’s a good idea to give these a second or even a third chance.  Perhaps the new owners took over in a particularly bad growing year, as happened at Limerick Lane Cellars.  Or it may take several seasons for a winemaker to align his or her techniques with what the terroir has to offer.

And these sorts of discoveries don’t even include the pleasing response to a winery where the wine may not be to your taste, but the overall experience makes a visit worthwhile.

Long Island’s North Fork Wineries…Today

For New York City residents and Long Islanders, a wine tasting trip to Long Island’s North Fork was and is the primary destination that didn’t require an extensive journey.  The roads on the North Fork are a bit of well-groomed Americana; the vineyards are beautiful; and the people in the wineries are eager to demonstrate that Long Island belongs on the viticultural map.  However, in the past the wines, to our taste, with few exceptions did not rise to the quality that the winemakers wished to credit them with.

We are pleased to report that a lot has changed in recent years, much for the better.  There are more wineries, with more interest in improving the wine tasting experience and, again to our opinion, there are more wines worth a two-hour drive on the Long Island Expressway.

How have things changed, or not?

Tasting near the vines at McCall Wines.

Many of the experiences of wine tasting on Long Island have not changed.  Once you get past Riverhead, there is village after village with wineries, either on Route 48 to the north or Route 25 to the south, with more on the latter road.  The homes are gracious, huge trees overhang the roads (again more so to the south) and the wineries are well marked so that finding your way is simple.

But certain changes are more evident.  Visitors don’t belly up to the bar and taste a broad selection of a winery’s offerings.  In most cases, wines are available in preselected flights, or by the glass or bottle.  Thus the atmosphere is a little more like being in a bar than a winery.

And even where there is a bar – some wineries don’t even have one! – most people take their tastes outdoors, on a patio, on a lawn or even right up next to the vines.  This works spectacularly well on beautiful summer days (which we have been fortunate to experience) but might not be so enjoyable on a grey, muggy or rainy one.

The tasting room at Sparkling Pointe.

Another noticeable difference is that the food trucks are gone, at least on weekdays.  Many of the wineries now offer food to pair with their wines.  Mostly it’s cheese and charcuterie that are available, with some making more memorable repasts than others.

The pioneering wineries are still there and, based on some sampling, we can say that they are much as they were: not terrible but nothing to write home about either.  But people with money have begun to open or take over wineries.  They have invested in more architecturally pleasing tasting rooms and better winemaking equipment.  With money, they can afford to invest in crafting better wines: dropping more fruit, hiring more workers to prune and care for the vines, and letting the grapes reach the fullest maturity.

The result has been a distinct heightening of the quality of the wines of the North Fork.  To our tastes, Paumanok, McCall’s, Mattebella and Sparking Pointe lead the way.  (Mattebella is reviewed in this issue.  The others will be in focus in later editions.)  We’re sure that others are coming to the fore as well.

In a few words, the North Fork has gone from being a pleasant diversion to a wine lover’s destination.

Think About Farming

For most of us, wine tasting is focused on, well, wine.  We visit different wineries in the same region and learn to detect the subtle differences between one Chardonnay and, say, three others made within a mile of one another.  We give credit, if we think about it at all, to the winemaker who we see as a master artisan.  In general that’s true, but wine is a combination of artistry, industrial processes and agriculture.

Even when we are at a winery surrounded by vines, how many of us even consider soil composition, trellising and drip irrigation?  Visiting at harvest time, with grapes hanging heavy on the vines, we don’t believe that many people give a lot of thought to how much science, expertise and sheer hard work went into getting those grapes there.  Now, we’re not advocating that everyone take a few courses at Davis before going wine tasting, but maybe a few thoughts on the matter and a bit of reading are appropriate.

Workers harvesting in the Beuajolais region.

You’ll enjoy the wine you taste at any time of the year, but we think that there’s also pleasure in knowing what has to happen to get the wine out of the ground and into your glass.  For one thing, a visitor ought to be aware of what’s happening in the vineyards at any particular time of year that they are there.  Of course, in the winter months the vines are bare, but there’s lots of work going on to prune the vines to increase later yields.  In March, there’s some green on those vines; it’s called bud break.  Sometime in May, itsy-bitsy grapes begin to form, which is called the fruit set.

Things get serious in July and August, the period of veraison, when those premature clusters become recognizable as grapes.  The farmers now do the unthinkable – they cut away many of the grape bunches that were forming.  This process, called dropping fruit, allocates nature’s resources from within the ground through the vines to the remaining clusters.  Then in late August through October, the grapes are harvested and vinified.

The nature of the soil makes a difference.  Calcareous soil contains limestone that retains water, making farming easier, and the limestone adds acidity to the wines.  On the other hand, grapes grown in gravelly soils are enhanced by the retained heat in the rocks, making the resulting wines bolder and higher in alcohol.  This type of soil is typical in Bordeaux’s Left Bank, which is why wines from the south of the city are called Graves.  If the ground has a clay-like consistency, it favors grapes that ripen quickly, such as Merlot, which is common on the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region.  This little bit of agricultural knowledge explains why wines from a few miles apart in the same region can be so different.

If your reason for going wine tasting is simply to sample, drink or party, none of these thoughts about farming will make any difference.  But if you, like us, go to learn as well as sip, then having a basic understanding of the farmers’ contributions adds to the pleasure.

Bad Wine

The rationale for wine tasting as an avocation is – of course – that you get a chance to try a lot of really good wines.  Sometimes when we enter a winery’s tasting room, we know we are going to taste something delicious or at least interesting.  Often, when we’re visiting a winery for the first time, we may not know what to expect, but we have every reason to be excited about trying something new.  And a few times, we’ve been disappointed with the wines we’ve tasted.

But there have been rare occasions when we’ve been handed a glass of really bad wine.  That’s not the same as wine we didn’t like.  We’re talking about wine that has been poorly made, bottled or stored.

The most common cause of spoilage is corked wine.  This is not really the fault of the winemaker but rather of the company that sold corks to the winery.  In growing or preparing the corks, a grower may have unintentionally introduced a chemical known scientifically as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (or more usefully, as TCA).  From the moment that cork is put in the bottle, the wine in it will taste corked.

A wine testing lab.  Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

We were once at a winery that prides itself on their scientific approach to winemaking.  We even got to see their lab where people in white coats were doing something that looked like high school chem lab to us.  When they poured our first taste it was immediately apparent that the Chardonnay smelled and tasted like wet cardboard.  (Some people say it’s wet dog, but let’s not go there.)  The server was at first surprised and then abashed, but truly it was her fault.  She should have tasted the wine first before pouring it.  Maybe she did and didn’t recognize that the bottle was spoiled, which is even worse.

Consumers should be on the watch for cork taint.  If you find it at a tasting room or at home, bring it to the winery’s attention.  Many corks have identifiers so that the winery can tell who had sold them the faulty corks.

Another common fault in wines you might taste is called brettanomyces, or brett.  This is a type of yeast.  Since yeasts are an essential ingredient in making wine, some funky yeasts are bound on occasion to sneak in.  However, in some cases brett is considered a feature, not a flaw.  This yeast produces an aroma and taste that is generally referred to as “barnyard” in polite company.  In rude company it’s called…well, never mind.  There are some wine lovers who find a bit of this taste to be admirable, especially in Pinot Noirs from Burgundy in particular.

For the record, we’re not brett fans.  A little is bad and even Burgundians know that a lot isn’t good.  If you find it in a bottle opened at a winery, bring it to management’s attention right away.  When it happens in a wine opened at home, a reputable wine seller should exchange a purchase.

The point is not to play wine detective looking for bad bottles.  They are rare enough that most people only rarely encounter one.  We have seen some people who were evidently unaware of what bad wine smells and tastes like, finish a bottle and not understand why they didn’t like it.  That’s why a sommelier takes a sip of our wine and let’s us try it before serving it.  There’s no reason to drink bad wine…Life is too short !

Visiting Saint-Chinian

The Languedoc is a big place, ranging from France’s Spanish border to the south, wrapping around to the doorstep of Provence to the east.  Approximately in the middle is the village (and appellation) of Saint-Chinian.  (We Americans would spell it St. Chinian.)  It’s a sweet little town that exists in its current form because of the wine trade.  As pointed out elsewhere in this edition, Saint-Chinian makes good but not great wine (that we’ve tasted), so it doesn’t have the lushness and wealth of, say, St. Emilion or Beaune or, for that matter, Healdsburg.

What it has is a sense of French-ness, or better yet Southern French-ness.  Add to it that Saint-Chinian is a typical rural market town and it all makes being there worth experiencing. As you arrive or leave, be sure to take in the ravishing views.  Saint-Chinian sits at the edge of a mountain range (well, hills really).  There’s a real difference between the stony wines in the hills and the softer ones from the valley, which becomes apparent as you drive through. There’s one main street leading in, the D177, that leads into another main street, the D612, that goes out to the vineyards.  In the French naming system, a D-road means Départementale (or regional, in English), which means it’s not much more than a two-way street, so expect to go slow.

The village of Saint-Chinian sits at the foot of a range of small mountains.

Going slow seems to be a way of life in Saint-Chinian.  The only time you’ll see any bustle is on market days, Sundays and Thursdays.  Then the stalls and trucks fill the main square and people come from miles around to shop, socialize, argue (it is France, after all), have a cup of coffee and generally hang out.  There are marchés in many of the nearby villages, but Saint-Chinian draws people from those areas because of its size and perhaps because of the quality of the items for sale.

Selling tablecloths and carpets at the Saint-Chinian marché

Sure, there are fruits and vegetables and, depending on the season, you’ll find the same ones as at home (only better) and then some you can’t find back there, like the late summer mirabelles.  But then there’s a truck selling roast chickens just made right there in the seller’s rotisserie.  And another with a big pan of paella, ready to eat or for dinner.  And salamis.  And sausages.  And, mon Dieu, there are cheeses.  There are also housewares, including the fellow selling mats and tablecloths that we couldn’t resist.

After the market, you can head home and eat what you’ve bought.  But if you’re a tourist, you don’t have a home to go to.  So you just amble down the street to a café.  If the weather is good (and it usually is) you sit under a tree and eat an omelette or a plate of local charcuterie, with a glass of a Saint-Chinian wine, of course.

From there, you can be at the wineries and their surrounding vineyards in five minutes’ drive.  But you might just choose to relax in town and go wine tasting tomorrow.

Wine Tasting Amenities

Wineries are in several businesses.  Of course, their basic business is making and selling wine.  In this regard, their competition is other beverages, from soda pop through whiskey.  Mostly it’s alcoholic beverages consumed in a social setting, with beer brewers their primary competition as an industry.

They also make a substantial amount of money from wine tasting, which is Power Tasting’s subject.  Wineries are in the business of tourism, which is why we now see so many resorts opening in Wine Country.

So when we wine aficionados go wine tasting, we are certainly drawn to specific wineries by the quality of the wine being served.  To a very great extent, we also choose one winery to visit over another based on the overall experience we expect to have there.  Beyond the wine, we are attracted to the obvious big things: location, architecture and other attractions, such as art or panoramic views.

The tasting room at Louis M. Martini winery.

At a much more subtle level, the various amenities offered by a winery make a great deal of difference to the way we feel as we remember our experiences and plan to return.  The first and ultimately the most important is the personal interaction we have with the servers and other employees.  They should make a visitor feel more like a guest than a customer.    No one wants to feel looked down upon or intimidated. To our experience most do a good job of hospitality, but we have experienced some notable exceptions.  We have never returned to those places.

A tasting room should express the personality of the owners.  As more and more winemakers are taken over by big corporations, the tasting rooms have become visitor centers, located in palatial buildings that feel more like show rooms than friendly places to gather and sip.

If the owners collect art or horses or musical instruments or race car paraphernalia, they should share their collections with their guests.  Equally, the more humble wineries that are extensions of farms (which is all a vineyard is) should be rustic without being shabby.

At the most elemental level, wineries should show consideration for their guests no differently than each of us would do in welcoming friends into our homes.  The tasting rooms should be clean and tidy.  Double that for the bathrooms.  We appreciate shady places to park.  If there is bar service, there should be a place to sit if one wants to.  There should be accommodation for those with mobility issues.  Some sunlight is always appreciated as well as a view of the vines or the town, depending on location.

The little things add up, often in a subliminal manner.  Wine tasting venues in our times is about entertainment almost as much as wine.  Serving wine in the barn on a plank and two barrels might have been the way things were done 50 years ago, but in those days the wineries weren’t charging you to sip their wines nor selling their products for three-figure prices. Most winery owners understand that the experience is a part of their business model.  The others need to catch up.

Winery Glassware

As we wrote quite a few years ago, there was once a time that wineries gave away souvenir glasses if you stopped by and had a taste of their wines.  In fact, their tastings were free, too!  (And still are in a few places, believe it or not.)  We’re reminded of this because we recently got rid of nearly all of the glasses we had collected on wine tasting trips over the years.  Most of them were tiny and thick and we had too many; we don’t know why we kept them, except for the memories.  A few were of high quality and we kept those, because…well, just because.

But it caused us to give some thought to the role glassware plays in the wine tasting experience.

Photo courtesy of Kendall-Jackson.

In some ways, the quality of the glasses is indicative of the winery owners’ perception of their wine and their customers.  There are still some who serve tastings in small, clunky glasses.  Maybe they just don’t care, or think their customers don’t care or that they couldn’t tell the difference anyway.  Our experience is that many – certainly not all – people we meet in tasting rooms are reasonably familiar with wine and would appreciate a better glass.

At the other extreme, we’ve been finding some really fine glasses in some tasting rooms.  They have copious bowls, no lip (that little bulge you sometime find) at all on the edge of the glass, thin stems and a great feel in your hand.  If you turn the base of the glass slowly in the right light, you may find the mark of an Austrian or German glassmaker, such as Reidel, Spiegelau or Schott Zweizel.  These wineries make, or at least think they make, great wine that deserve great glasses.

But does it really make a difference?  Actually, yes it does.  A glass with the room to swirl the wine will open up the aromas in a way that a poorer glass cannot do.  And your ability to stick your nose in the glass as you sip will enhance your wine tasting enjoyment as well.  There is a sensual pleasure to holding a well-balanced wine glass that you can only understand if you can compare it with the other kind.  That’s why you don’t serve fine wine in jelly jars.

What if you don’t have exceptional wine glasses at home?  Will it make a difference to the wine if you buy some and take it home?  Not exactly.  But wine glasses are part of the allure of wine tasting.  So enjoy those fine glasses while you’re there!

Many of the gift shops at wineries will sell you their engraved glasses.  If your intent is to have a souvenir of your trip, by all means go ahead.  But if you are looking for quality glasses for your home, there are much better values to be had in the stores and on the internet.

And at the end of the day, if someone offers us Château Petrus in a plastic cup, we’ll be happy to take it.

Drinking with the Locals

One of the basic tenets we follow at Power Tasting is that we go to taste wine, not drink it and certainly not drink it to excess.  In our travels, we have met some people in tasting rooms who have failed to follow that rule and they were the worse for it.  But if you pace yourself, have breakfast and a hearty lunch, you may from time to time allow yourself what the French call an aperitif and the Italians an apertivo. (In the United States, we just call it a drink after work.)

One of the pleasures of an aperitif in Wine Country is that if you choose the right place to have one, you get to share the space and the experience with the people of the area.  You can just go to the first bar you come across.  If it has a bright neon sign in the window advertising Budweiser, you probably won’t be sipping a delicate Chardonnay.  But you very well might get a pint of one of the brews made in the area and that can be a pleasure too.  And you might be drinking next to the fellows who till the vineyards and pick the grapes that you’ve been trying that day.  If you don’t recognize the names of the ales on draft, ask the person next to you at the bar.  The worst that can happen is he’ll ignore you; the best is that you get to meet someone who’s in the know.

Willi’s in Healdsburg, a great place to meet local folks. Photo courtesy of USA Restaurants.

Many times we’ve taken a glass of wine before dinner at a restaurant other than the one we plan to dine in.  It’s a way to get to see more gathering spots and in some cases to familiarize yourself with the ambience of a restaurant before trying it for a meal.  You may be seated next to other tourists or you may get to meet the people who make the local wines.  If the latter, keep a polite eye on what they’re drinking.  It’s probably not their own because they are surrounded by it all day.  You can learn a lot from what the knowledgeable people of the area are having.

Strolling around the Piazza del Campo in Sienna.

The best way, by far, to enjoy an aperitif is to take it at a café in France or on a piazza in Italy.  We remember with much warmth sitting under the plane trees in front of the Bar Central in a tiny village surrounded by vines, while the piped music played French (and Quebecois) songs while the businesspeople and shopkeepers stopped by for a pastis or a glass of whatever was just growing a mile away.

Or watching the sun decline over the rooftops and steeples surrounding the big piazza that’s in every Italian town.  Half the town would take a glass with us, in order to watch the other half of the population indulge in what they call the passeggiata.  That’s just a walk around the square but it’s so much more.  It’s a chance to see the locals enjoying who’s out and about and to be seen being out and about.

Ah, yes, it must be 5 o’clock somewhere.