Editorial: Tipping

We have noticed a new phenomenon, a bit concerning, on our last few wine-tasting trips in California, both in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County.  Evidently, the servers expect to be tipped.  Sometimes that expectation is subtle; the server may bring up tipping and then say it’s completely at our discretion.  In other cases, they have let us know that a little something extra was what most tasters left behind.  In one case, shockingly, a tip was added to our check without asking us and without our approval.

We have been visiting wineries and tasting for decades and tipping is new to us, limited so far to California as far as we can tell.  We expect that servers are fairly paid and that a tip is unnecessary.  Why is this happening now?  It seems to be linked to software on tablets used to generate bills that have a button for tips of various percentages.

Some might argue that we would tip a bartender so why not a server in a winery’s tasting room?  Well, a bartender pours us a healthy drink, not four little sips.  He doesn’t try to sell us a bottle or a case of wine and he doesn’t try to convince us to join the bar’s club.  He leaves us alone if we want to enjoy our drink in peace and chats if we initiate the conversation.  A bartender’s purpose is service.  Servers in tasting rooms are salespeople.

We find the advent of tipping to be just another way wineries try to intimidate their customers.  The whole rationale for Power Tasting, as our masthead states, is “to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar”.  We understand the need for wineries to charge tasting fees; labor, real estate, electricity and taxes have to be paid somehow.  But tipping on top of that is an insult to the people who try and buy their wines.

So our advice is that when presented with one of those tablets or even a check on paper, tap the button that says, “No tip”.  We would very much like to hear readers’ opinions on this matter.  Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Editorial: Napa Valley Wine Tasting for the Many or the Few?

There was a time, in what now seems like the distant past, that going wine tasting was essentially free.  There was no charge for sips of wine served in glasses the size of egg cups.  And the only place that anyone had ever heard of to taste wine in the United States was Napa Valley.

There never was any reason why the wineries should have given away their product, but they considered it to be marketing.  With the sales of bottles to some of the tasters (either in appreciation of the wine or guilt over taking something for nothing), it must have been close to break-even.  In recent decades, wine tasting has become an activity that attracts hordes of adult tourists and it has become normal for wineries to charge for tastings.  In many cases the cost of a regular tasting was nominal and reserve tastings cost somewhat more.

The past few years have seen a series of crises in Napa Valley.  The greatest calamity, of course, was the Covid pandemic that has taken more than a million lives in the United States.  It closed wineries for tasting and when restrictions were lifted, for a time only outdoor seated tastings were permitted.  Then there were the terrible fires in 2020 that wiped out a year’s worth of grapes – and the resulting revenue – for many producers.  Finally, an inflationary surge sent the prices for fuel and equipment higher.  The increased costs, plus making up for the lost harvest, have been passed along to consumers in the cost of wine and of tastings.

The result has been tasting fees that make visiting some of the better-known wineries impractical for a wide swath of wine enthusiasts.  No matter how gracious the service, the quality of the wines or the overall entertainment value, a fee of $100 or more is going to be prohibitive for many visitors.  Only the well-heeled need apply.

In the short term, this may enable the wineries to bring in more revenue, while managing their labor costs.  But over the longer term, many young people – tomorrow’s best customers – will be driven away.  They may head for other venues or other drinks; there is no shortage of bars and microbreweries in California or elsewhere.  This trend will also lead, over time, to reduced sales in the stores and in the bars.

We at Power Tasting urge the winery owners to create programs for those who would like to learn about wine but cannot afford the high process in Napa Valley.  This might take the form of discounts, reduced prices at slower periods or outreach to populations that are not known for their wealth.  It’s good business and it’s only fair.

Editorial: Virtual Visiting

It’s just about a year now that the Covid-19 pandemic has been upon us.  As with most people, we at Power Tasting have been staying home in order to stay safe.  Wineries in the United States and Europe have been closed, open, closed, open depending on the current state of infections in each locality.  For those of us who enjoy travelling for wine tasting, 2020 was a barren year and 2021 isn’t starting any better.

And yet we have published Power Tasting every month as though the pandemic had never happened.  [Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Our May 2020 edition was about wine tasting during the lockdown.]  That’s because, as we say in our mission statement on our home page, we are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur.  And since few people can go on vacation all the time, our monthly articles are intended to give readers a virtual visit to Wine Country on the device of their choice.

We’re going to continue publishing these wine tasting vignettes every month.  Since the governor of California has just lifted restrictions on public gatherings, our mailbox has been full of announcements for tastings at our favorite wineries.  Sadly, we won’t be going and unless you live nearby, you probably won’t be either.  Please continue to travel with us, all the while staying safe, until we all can get on the road again.

Editorial: Wine Tasting Then and Now

We have gone wine tasting for many years, decades actually.  It is our avocation and it enriches our lives.  As Americans, we taste the wines of California more frequently than any other part of Wine Country, but have also visited many other locations.  We often go to European destinations, especially in France and Italy.

But not this year.

Because of Covid-19, we have curtailed our travels and do not go to places with crowds.  We’re sure many of our readers are imposing the same restrictions on themselves.  So, for example, this will be our first year without wine tasting in California since 1976.  Alas, but there are worse fates than skipping tasting rooms and there have been too many sad cases to feel too sorry for ourselves.

Many wineries have been forced to close their tasting rooms for various periods of time.  As we write, many Napa and Sonoma wineries are open for seated tastings outdoors, by appointment only.  We’re sure that must be fun, in its way, but it is a different experience than the ones we have enjoyed over the years.

Like so many people, for reasons more important than wine tasting, we eagerly await the conquest of this disease so we can return to Wine Country.  In the meantime, we are supporting our favorite wineries by ordering remotely and refilling our cellar.  We’re making a point to open some of our better bottles and using wine to add pleasure to our lives.  We remain confident that there will be better time ahead and that we will see the vineyards in bloom again…soon.

Editorial – They’re All Good

Once again, we have all been reading about the terrible fires in California, especially about the Kincade fire that has afflicted Sonoma County.  Sad to report, two wineries have been destroyed: Soda Rock and Firestone.  As we read the papers about these two, our initial reaction was that we didn’t know Soda Rock but that we were deeply saddened by the destruction of Fieldstone.  Their Cabernet Sauvignons have been among our favorites in Alexander Valley and the views of the mountains from their winery were priceless.  Soda Rock received only a shrug.

Soda Rock Winery Sticky Logo

But that shrug was very wrong.  Maybe Soda Rock wasn’t well known.  Maybe their wines weren’t to our taste.  (Who knows?  We’ve never tried them.)  But the owners, Ken and Diane Wilson,  had certainly invested time, money and love into their winery.  Somebody liked their wines, because they did sell them.  People’s livelihoods depended on Soda Rock.  We’ve learned that the buildings on the winery were historic, albeit in need of repair, upkeep that will never be made now.

Which of us is so wise, has such an elevated palate that we can dismiss their wines?  Soda Rock was part of the community that collectively makes up Wine Country.  Its loss diminishes us all.  If they were making wine, that was good, because each winery in its own way is good.  They’re all good.

We were pleased to read that Soda Rock is still offering tastings in their barn.  That’s a very good thing, indeed.

Editorial: Gary Farrell Winery, Again

We at Power Tasting always strive for journalistic accuracy in all our articles.  Sadly, sometimes we slip up.  But we always correct any errors we know of.

So, in our last issue we published a review of wine tasting at Gary Farrell Winery in Russian river Valley.  We received an appreciative note from Sam Folsom, a publicist for the winery.  Evidently, there were some significant changes made just after our last visit.

He informed us that Gary Farrell Winery opened their new tasting room, which was significantly redesigned and remodeled. They no longer have the tasting bar, which is shown in our story, and it is replaced by a series of comfortable seating options, which look out on the valley through a floor-to-ceiling window (the popular outdoor patio remains). As we noted, they are now open by appointment, and guests have a series of tasting and tour options to choose from.

The new Gary Farrell Winery Salon, created by architect Michael Guthrie, has a contemporary design with organic finishes and they tell us that it is welcoming and comfortable. Its center room is open and airy with a vaulted wood beam ceiling and dramatic, floor-to-ceiling canted windows that showcase a commanding view of the forested Russian River Valley. The popular outdoor terrace remains a centerpiece of the Gary Farrell Winery experience, around which the salon rooms are now arranged, but it has undergone a significant remodel with new furniture and seating arrangements, including oversized couches, as well as distinctive, vaulted shade sails.

We intend to re-visit in the near future.

A Letter from Andrea Contucci

In the December 2018 issue we published a review of Cantine Contucci in Montepulciano, Italy.  That town is best known for its voluptuous red wine, Vino Nobile.  We received a letter from Andrea Contucci, which points out an error we made, which has already been repaired.

I have just commented your nice article about Vino Nobile and Contucci winery on Power Tasting.

I’ve also shared it on our Facebook page.

Many thanks for your delicious words about Vino Nobile appellation, about Montepulciano and about Contucci.

In the article I noticed a detail to correct; when you speak of grapes for Vino Nobile, the Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasìa grapes should not be mentioned, because they are actually used for white wine and Vin Santo, not for Vino Nobile.

I really invite you to return here to have a real meeting and toast with one of our Vino Nobiles.


Happy holiday seasons and see you soon in Montepulciano.

Reader’s Comment: It’s All about the Taste

The following comment was submitted by Paul de (J. P.) Bary, author of The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine: How to Enjoy the Best and Skip the Rest.  Paul was a college classmate of Steve’s.

Kudos for your focus on what matters most – taste!

I love Steve’s simple rules*. Most people have an intuition about them, but are misled by all the hype.

Learning to know what you like is all about feeling comfortable with your own sense of taste. You can connect that with the hype once you get comfortable with your own instincts.

Most people get confused about Rule #2, thinking that you have to memorize labels. With all the wines in the world, that’s obviously a daunting proposition…and there’s no guarantee that any specific wine will be available when you want it or that it will be the best choice under the circumstances.

What’s easier to remember is the grape variety (or blend of grapes), the region and the style of the wines you drink and how they fit with the food or occasion.

These are the types of things that are easy to bring home from a visit to a winery and your tips make that experience easier and more rewarding.

Keep up the good work!


* 1. Know what you like.  2. Remember what it’s called.

Reprise: The Server Series

A year ago, Power Tasting published a Field Guide to Servers, a tongue-in-cheek series on the different types of people who serve wine in tasting rooms.  We added some tips on how to get the most out of your interactions with each type:

  • The Pourer: a person whose sole activity is to remove wine from a bottle through the neck and place it in a glass
  • The Host: someone whose objective is simply to make sure that everyone is having a good time
  • The Seller: a server whose intention is not that you have a great time but rather that you join the winery’s club or at least buy some wine while you are there
  • The Retainer: a person who appears more like a personal employee of the owner, whom he or she treats with a deference that approaches worship
  • The Educator: a server not only knows wine but is excited by it and is eager to share his or her expertise with others

If you missed the series or just would like to re-read some of the descriptions, click your way to these “library selections” as they say at wineries.

Editorial: Why Power Tasting Has No Bad Reviews

Each issue of Power Tasting contains a review of the tasting experience at a winery, often in California’s Wine Country but also of wineries we have visited elsewhere around the world.  The review never says, “We had a terrible time.  Don’t go there.”  That’s not because we have never visited a subpar winery.  Rather, it’s our view of service to our readers.  We enjoy suggesting places you might like to visit and take no pleasure in telling you what to avoid.

There are many so-called “magazines” available in Wine Country, that find everything to be wonderful.  Their articles are mostly written by vineyard public relations people and the magazines, if not on the take, are recompensed by advertising dollars.  This is absolutely not the case with Power Tasting.  We take no money or advice from anyone in our appraisals for the tasting experience.  In fact we pay to be members of the wine clubs at several of our favorite wineries.

If you read some of our commentary closely, you’ll see that there are some where the overall experience is commendable but we’re not crazy about the wine.  You may also see that we prefer simple wineries to elaborate Napa Palaces.  But we also recognize that tastes differ and that it would be better to let you discover the occasional winery you’re less than satisfied with, than try to keep you away from having your own wine tasting discoveries.

We always focus on the tasting experience you can have when you visit the wineries we write about, not the wines themselves. But sometimes when we make a wonderful discovery, it’s difficult not to write a little about it.