Old Times in California Wine Country #1 – Louis M. Martini

We’ve been going wine tasting for a long time. Steve has been to California wineries at least once each year since 1977. Lucie first visited there in the late 1980’s and the two of us have traveled to some part of California Wine Country together for 15 years now. There have been a lot of changes, and some of them for the better. Unfortunately some have been for the worse, but we’ll save complaints for another day. From time to time, we’ll post some recollections of what it was like in the old days, mostly in Napa Valley, both to keep the memories alive as well as to point out that similar experiences are still available in Napa and other parts of the California.

In the early ‘90s, Steve’s son Ted was at USC in Los Angeles.   Steve and Ted took a driving tour up the coast, as far as Napa Valley, a nice opportunity to introduce Steve’s son to fine wines and wine tasting.

One of the stops, at around 11:00 am, was the old Louis M. Martini Winery. Martini is now owned by the mega group Gallo. The Martini tasting room is well worth visiting, if only for the Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon. Monte Rosso was once considered among the top wines in California. It has been forgotten in the age of Opus One and Screaming Eagle, but it’s still a pretty good wine and it should be tasted. Today’s tasting room is fancier than it was in the days when Louis M. and his son Louis P. ran the place, but it’s not one of the palaces dotted around Napa Valley today.

Back in the day, there was simply a bar placed in front of the barrel room. Not quite two barrels and a plank, it was still very much a place where winemakers worked and visitors were welcomed in for a few sips (at little or no cost). Steve had met the founder, Louis M. Martini, but by the time of the father-son visit, the elder Martini had passed away. His son, though, was very much in evidence.

So, on a slow, midweek morning, Mr. Martini saw Steve trying to educate Ted and must have enjoyed the sight. After the two visitors had tried the wines on offer that day, Mr. Martini sidled over behind the bar and asked, “What kind of wine do you like?” Steve answered, “Well, you’re famous for your Cabernets, and I like big, powerful wines. That’s why I wanted my son to taste here.” At that, Mr. Martini went off and returned with six bottles, each a single vineyard estate Cabernet, three from their Napa properties and three from Sonoma, on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains. (They still grow on those properties.) He opened all six and then asked us to try each one and tell him how we liked them. “How about playing winemaker” he offered, and so we poured a little from this bottle, a little from that until we each had something in our glasses that, well, wasn’t of course nearly as good as a professional winemaker would have created, but it was fun. Lesson learned.

There are still opportunities to meet the owners and winemakers in Wine Country and some wineries offer “mix-it-yourself” classes. You can find them at Joseph Phelps (with the constituent wines of Insignia, no less) and at Conn Creek. Appointments are necessary at both places.

Christmas spirit in wineries

Our wedding anniversary is at the beginning of December and for many years we have been celebrating it in Napa or Sonoma.  Besides being in Wine Country for our anniversary, we also get to enjoy an early Christmas. Frogs Leap 1Christmas decorations are everywhere.  You walk in many of the wineries and you’re facing a beautiful Christmas tree, decorations on the fireplace mantel, holiday music and the spirit of the holidays everywhere you look.  One of our favorite Pinot wineries is Etude in Carneros. (We’re also club members there.)  The last time we stopped by for a visit, on top of being in heaven with the wines that we were being served, we had the joy of having our tasting by a huge, beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

The town of Napa is very festive but the top is in Yountville where, by the way, the famous chef Thomas Keller has three restaurants that we love (French Laundry, Bouchon and Ad Hoc).   As soon as you get off Route 29 and turn on Washington Street, you are in a different world. The town itself becomes a Christmas Wonderland.  We had never seen anything like this; the town is entirely lit with Christmas lights. It’s absolutely like being in a fairy tale.  It’s magical!

Most of the wineries have a shop where they sell souvenirs and wine related articles.  During the holidays they add all those pretty Christmas decorations, tablecloths, cocktail napkins, chinaware.  It is a great place to find a gift for wine lovers.  Some of these items are often found exclusively in wineries. We’re not talking about the wine itself, but corkscrews, glasses, wine books, etc.  One article that we have bought there over the years is a vine leaf that had been plated in silver or gold, with a little ribbon on top to hang in the Christmas tree.  That’s an exclusive and pretty wine gift!

Let’s not forget the hotels and restaurants.   You’ll be in the Christmas spirit wherever you eat and stay.  We love to stay at the Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa. When you enter in the driveway, you will face an enormous Christmas tree in front of the resort welcoming you, plus decorations all over the resort.  One late afternoon in December, we sat on the porch facing the Christmas tree sipping a glass of wine and watching the sunset.  Not bad at all!

If you’re looking for a different experience and atmosphere for a next trip to the Wine Country, try it in December.  You’ll not only get the Christmas spirit but also fewer tourists (but please don’t tell everyone).

Joyeux Noël

Etiquette # 1 – PERFUME

Lucie is writing this blog post.  Steve can smell all the aromas in a glass of wine but can’t smell perfume!

We are both very strong on the following advice: please everyone, guys and gals, do not travel with your bottle of perfume, cologne or after-shave when you go wine tasting.   Leave it at home when you go to Wine Country.  Perfume detracts from your tasting experience as well as that of those around you.

The idea of going wine tasting is to taste and smell the wines.  Perfume blocks all the wonderful aromas of what has been poured in your glass.  And since most of what we humans taste comes from our sense of smell, you don’t get the true flavor of the wine either.

Recently, we were at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena.  While they are undergoing renovations at the winery, they were offering tastings under a marquee, outside besides the vineyard, below the winery.  Phelps is one of our favorite wineries in Napa Valley   When we reserved for our wine tasting, we were not told that the tasting room and patio where we had been many times before was being renovated. It was a surprise but not a good one.

Worst of all, there was a woman standing beside us at the bar wearing such a powdery perfume, I had to move away from her.  Unfortunately the scent of her perfume was all around, even if we were outside; imagine what it would have been like indoors.   Some smaller wineries have very small tasting rooms; her perfume would have been totally overwhelming.

Smelling that perfume made our tasting experience so unpleasant that it completely ruined Lucie’s visit, unable to get the bouquet and the taste of the wines being served… because of that perfume!

We insist that it is not only women we’re talking about, but men also.    Leave the Old Spice at home, guys.  When you taste wine, what you smell is as important as what you have in your mouth, so let’s all enjoy it to the maximum.


What to do with that Bucket on the Bar?

You are standing at a bar in a beautiful tasting room and a nice person pours you a glass of wine. You taste it, maybe you like it…and then you get rid of it!!??!! Yes, that is exactly what you should do, for a number of reasons. Maybe you didn’t like it. Maybe you were more interested in the reds than the whites. Most important if you want to taste a variety of wines at several vineyards, you can’t drink all the wine that will be served because you’ll get drunk. Every taster should know his or her limitations and getting to the bottom of every glass is going to hurry you along to your limit more quickly than you probably want.

For that reason, wineries leave buckets on the counter. Known unglamorously as spit buckets, their purpose is for discarding unwanted wine. If the wineries didn’t think they would be used, they wouldn’t put them there. Or looking at it the other way around, they put spit buckets there just so that you will use them. You don’t want to be drunk, and the wineries even more so don’t want you getting drunk on their premises.

People who taste wine for a living, such as wine makers and shop owners, taste a lot of wine at one time and have little choice but to discard most of it. They drink some wine, slosh it around their mouths and spit it into the bucket. We’ve seen it; we’ve done it once or twice; and believe us, it’s not an edifying spectacle. Try to imagine if everyone…on second thought, don’t try to imagine it.

In most cases, we share a tasting. So one of us breathes in the aroma, takes a sip and passes it to the other. The second one does the same thing and asks the first, “Would you like a little more?” If the answer is no, that one unobtrusively pours the remainder into the waiting bucket. Even if the glass was generously filled, we get rid of it, feeling no obligation to drink it all.

And the wineries don’t care. Don’t be embarrassed or feel that you’re insulting either the server or the winemaker by pouring away perfectly good wine. They want you to taste their wine, and once you’ve tasted it, it’s okay if you don’t taste it all.

Sometimes we just don’t like the wine they poured. So we pour it away, without ceremony or commentary, exactly as we would do if we really liked it. We pace ourselves for the one or two wines that we do want to drink all of. We sometimes ask servers not to pour us too much, precisely because we know we will use the bucket. Almost invariably, the server will say, “Oh, don’t worry about it”. They want us to get the full effect of their products, the look, the aroma, the aeration we achieve by swirling it in our glass. That’s not really possible with three millimeters at the bottom.

A healthy pour doesn’t have to be a healthy swig. That’s what the bucket is for. So use it.

Wine and Art

There is a lot of wine to taste in Napa Valley but some wineries offer something extra, which is art.  Turnbull Winery (www.turnbullwines.com) is one of them.  They have a rotating exhibition of historic black and white photographs in the Gallery Tasting Room, that they change twice a year.  Patrick O’Dell, the winery owner, has a vast collection that he puts on display.  The current show is an Ansel Adams retrospective, with some of the most famous of his silver gelatin prints up on the walls.   Each time we’ve been to Turnbull, we were so pleased by their exhibition but did not spend enough time strolling around.   We promised ourselves that the next time we will plan more time just to visit the exhibition which is always amazing … and of course taste their wine.

The building is beautiful, in a wooden barn-style with high ceilings and “Napa style” décor. While at the bar for the tasting you’re facing a large window from which you can enjoy the view of the garden and the vineyard.  They have built a beautiful green vegetable garden and when we mentioned how interesting and pretty it was, they offered us some vegetables.  Unfortunately we could not accept because we were staying at a hotel.

You can either have your tasting in the tasting room or outside in the garden where they have chairs and tables and also a fire pit for cooler days.

The guys are extremely nice and knowledgeable.  We were invited to bring our glass of wine with us and have a tour of their barrel room where all their wines from the last harvest were resting.  It was in December; the crush was in the barrels; everything was spic & span; an employee was making the Christmas decorations; and it smelled so delicious, we just wanted to stay there!

They are not pretentious and it’s worth a stop for a tasting because they know how to make great wines.  They say that some producers make good wine in a bad year and Turnbull’s 2011’s are proof of the saying.    Turnbull is certainly on our top list for our next visit to Napa.

Saintsbury: Who Let the Dogs Out?

Hidden – and we do mean hidden – on a back road in Carneros is the Saintsbury Winery (www.saintsbury.com), a barn-style building reminding us of the old-time Napa. Be sure to call in advance as they have a “by appointment only” policy, although we have found it possible just to drop by. But when you come ignore the address, ignore your GPS and phone them to get the instructions for the last few hundred yards. We’ve gotten lost both times we visited there.

The trip is definitely worth making, for Saintsbury offers some pretty fine Pinot Noirs and the Chardonnay isn’t shabby either. (Their web site indicates that they also make Syrahs, but we’ve never tasted them.) What makes Saintsbury unique is that there is no tasting room. In good weather they will seat you in a pleasant garden, under the trees. The first time we were there it was in September and we had our tasting watching the employees bringing the grapes in their trucks and doing the crushing in front of us. We were also there on a rainy day and we sat on a sofa just inside the blending room, facing the vineyards. While the staff were having their weekly communal lunch – a rather telling statement about the winery by itself – a staff member explained each wine, poured them in succession and let us enjoy our wine and relax, then came back later with the next wine to taste. On both occasions, the staff members were quite pleasant and seemed knowledgeable about Saintsbury’s production.

Their wines are mostly sourced and produced on a single vineyard basis. They are best known for their Pinot Noirs, of which the Brown Ranch is the most expensive. It was the favorite of both of us, but Lucie also loved the Stanly Ranch for its hard candy taste.

An added attraction is the presence of two vineyard dogs. They have a well-worn ball and they want to play with you. The black one is the more eager of the two. He’ll bring the ball and drop it at your feet, or at least somewhere near your feet. If you toss it where he can grab it in his teeth without running, he’ll always get it. But the brown and white dog, while more shy, is much faster. She’ll tear into the vineyards on a longer throw and always bring it back…for the black one to return to you. We (and the dogs) thought it was great fun.

All put together, the experience is very much like visiting someone’s home and relaxing in the garden or the patio while fine wines are served. It’s a lot more like the way you’ll actually enjoy them than bellying up to a bar.

Welcome to Power Tasting

Welcome to the Power Tasting blog.

A few years ago, we – Lucie Gauthier and Steve Ross (a married couple living in Manhattan) – set out to write a book about wine tasting. We are avid lovers of wine from all over the world and have travelled widely to wine growing regions on four continents. However, we don’t feel qualified to offer advice or even public opinions about wine.

[Well, that’s not exactly true. Steve offers two rules: 1. Know what you like. 2. Remember what it’s called.]

Our objective was and still is to offer suggestions to the traveler who wishes to visit wineries and taste good wine. We are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur. We want 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 and to be able to taste – not drink – as much as possible within the boundaries of safety and sanity.

Writing the book, to be named Power Tasting, was interrupted by the damage done to our home by Hurricane Sandy and the year and a half of clean-up, restoration and renovation after the storm. That is all done and we haven’t finished the book. We have come to understand how difficult it is to do that while running a home and a business and generally enjoying life. We’re still at it and will publish as soon as we can, but have decided in the meantime to start this blog. Our book is going to focus on wine tasting in Napa Valley but the blog will cover the tasting experience everywhere we have been and will go in the future. And we’ll welcome input from anyone who is kind enough to read our blog.

As mentioned, comments about wine will be incidental. We’re focusing on the overall experience, including the service, knowledge of the personnel, crowd management, artwork, architecture and the overall ambience of the wineries we visit. We may even mention where to have a picnic or take a walk in the garden. And we may write about some restaurants, shops and other things to do while on a wine tasting trip.

We certainly won’t be posting every day but we will do so frequently and will check for comments as often as we can. So come take a very pleasant trip with us to some of the prettiest places we know: Wine Country.