Tasting 2011

It’s not news that 2011 was a terrible year for California wines. Don’t just take our word for it; Wine Spectator said that “the 2011 growing season was simply nasty for many California winegrowers.”   It was cold. It rained when it shouldn’t have and didn’t rain when it should have. This should be a warning to those who would like to visit Northern California’s Wine Country over the next year or so.

It’s not that you’ll only be served “lousy” wine. For one thing, it has long been said that there’s bad wine in good years and good wine in bad ones. We’ve tasted some pretty good wine from that troubled vintage. Turnbull’s Fortuna Vineyard wines and Caymus Special Selection are good examples. When we tasted the Caymus, it had just been released. It was pretty good and generally this wine improves with aging.

Some wineries decided not to make their top wines that year, so there is no 2011 Etude Heirloom Pinot Noir or Conn Creek Anthology available for tasting. Other vineyards tried to tough it out and, in our opinion, made wines that don’t live up to their heritages, although they still cost the same as in better years.

Visitors should approach each winery with informed caution. By all means, taste the 2011s if that’s what’s on offer. If you like them, so much the better. If you don’t, that’s a part of the educational experience as well. It’s as valuable to know what you don’t like as what you do like.

If you’re not happy with what you’re tasting, or you’re not sure, say so and ask if they have an earlier vintage to try, for comparison’s sake. Most wineries have older bottles and would rather open one than let you leave dissatisfied. We call our blog Power Tasting because we believe the visitor has a right to question and compare. In most tasting rooms, you pay a substantial amount to taste the better wines. You ought to get your money’s worth.

When you do compare two vintages of the same wine, ask for two glasses and taste them side by side. While it’s true that extra time in the bottle will improve many wines, you’ll still get a good idea how two different vintages are alike and how they vary.   Since they’re from the same vineyard and crafted by the same winemaker, the difference has to be in the conditions that come from the weather. The knowledge that comes from learning to distinguish these differences in your own mouth is one of the things that makes wine tasting so exciting.

“Important” wineries

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has long been one of the treasures of California’s Wine Country.   In fact, we’d say it was one of the treasures of the world of wine, period. Along with Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap won the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, establishing the fact that California could match France for the quality of its wine. And if you should visit those two wineries, they won’t let you forget it.

But today, Stag’s Leap is not the same company as it was when founder Warren Winiarski was in charge. (Lucie met him at a wine tasting some years ago in New York, got a signed bottle and a hug, has a fond memory of him and still refers to him as Warren.) When he decided to retire in 2007, he sold the company to a huge international consortium and agreed to consult for another three years. Yes, they still make the Cabernets they’re famous for: SLV, Fay and Cask 23. (We actually prefer their Artemis, which is not completely estate-grown.) But if you do the math, 2011 was the first year that Mr. Winiarski no longer had anything to do with Stag’s Leap.

Until the end of 2014, the winery itself looked like a large wooden California house with a gorgeous garden. The tasting room was in a somewhat dark, wood-paneled room that always seemed crowded. We have been told that they often had to ask visitors to wait outside until there was space available inside. The tasting experience may have been a bit cramped, but the wine was great and the room had real presence. You could just feel that a master had made wine there.

Stag’s Leap no longer has a tasting room. Now they call it a Visitors Center, beautifully designed and imposingly modern. Made of stone, steel and glass, it has a panoramic window that looks out onto the famous vineyards and the mountains beyond. Open and airy, there are tables around a large room where a waiter brings you one wine after the other.

To us, the change from a tasting room to a Visitors Center says a lot about what is happening to much of Napa Valley. The wine is less important than the experience that the visitor receives. The owners want to be seen as making something important for people who are important. Therefore an important building is required to demonstrate the importance of all involved. Perhaps there is no intent to intimidate people who are just wine-loving folks, but that is the net effect.

At Stag’s Leap today, you don’t just walk up to a bar where a server asks, “Would you like to taste some wine today?” Rather, you are met at a front desk by a receptionist who asks if you’ve got an appointment. You’re then walked to a table and introduced to your waiter. It feels more like dinner at the snazziest restaurant in town than a visit to a winery, which after all is just a combination of a farm and a factory. If you are someone who would never get to taste a $225 bottle of wine (Cask 23, 2010) except in a tasting room, or for that matter have dinner in your city’s best restaurant, you’re made to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

On top of that, the 2011s we were served were the worst we’ve ever tasted from Stag’s Leap.   Perhaps it’s just the vintage, admittedly a terrible one everywhere. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first year without Mr. Winiarski’s hands.

Finding your wine roots

Wine Country is full of surprises and encounters.  Here is one of those.

The last time we were in Napa Valley, we had dinner at one of our favorite local places in downtown Napa called Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smokin’ BBQ.  First, this is an amazing “mixed place” – a wine shop, a bar and a restaurant, decorated Far West style.   They carry a selection of wines, some very rare, at very good prices.  Their wine list is also quite interesting and you can taste great wines there, or find something very unusual that you’ve never heard of.  The food is all about BBQ and they make the best pork ribs in the Valley.  We can’t go to Napa Valley without eating there!

On our last visit, we’re looking at the wine list to choose a bottle for dinner and Lucie saw that they had a Pinot Noir called Gauthier, spelled exactly the same way as her name.  Lucie told the waiter that her name was Gauthier and asked him to bring us two glasses of this wine, but we were told that it was not sold by the glass, only by the bottle.   So we decided to buy a bottle and if we didn’t like it, we’d order something else.  We could not leave without tasting that Gauthier Pinot Noir.  It was a smooth Pinot; we enjoyed it and of course finished the bottle.  We took the empty bottle with us with the idea that we would try to find the winery and pay a visit.

We found the address of Gauthier Cellars and on our way to visit Etude and Truchard wineries (we are members of their clubs), we finally found a winery with that address but the name of the winery was Bouchaine Vineyards. We knew and had visited Bouchaine in past years.    We walked inside the tasting room and Lucie asked one of the guys at the bar pouring wine for customers, “Does anyone know where we can find Gauthier Cellars?”   The answer came from the other man at the end of the bar who was helping customers. “Yes I do. I’m Greg Gauthier, the winemaker”.   Lucie replied that her name was also Gauthier.  They shook hands, talked about each other’s roots and Lucie told Greg that we had tasted his wine at Bounty Hunter and that we felt we had to find the winery, bien sûr!  He immediately gave us each an empty glass and invited us to follow him for a private tour of the cellar. We were introduced to Michael Richmond, the winemaker at Bouchaine and the owner of the vineyard that grew the grapes of that Pinot Noir we drank.  We walked all together through the cellar.   We had a fantastic time, listening to Greg Gauthier’s winemaking story, talking with him and tasting wines directly from the barrels.

Gauthier Pinot Noir

According to Greg’s research on the history of Gauthiers in the wine trade, the name can be found in France in the Champagne, Cognac and Loire Valley regions. But he says that his roots and passion for winemaking are strictly American.  In 2002, with the acquisition of three tons of Carneros Pinot Noir grapes, Gauthier Select Vineyards was founded.  Gauthier Select Vineyards (that’s the name of the company, although the label says just Gauthier and the web site is www.gauthiercellars.com) is now in its 13th year of operation.    His production of Pinot Noir is small and unfortunately his wine cannot be found in New York, but can be ordered directly from Gauthier Select Vineyards.

You understand that this is Lucie’s post.  She is from Québec and very proud of her roots.

Taking or not taking your kids to wine tasting

Standing at a bar in a tasting room with children around?   Is it any different than standing at your favorite local bar having a glass of wine with children around?

Children and bars are not a good fit.  However, there are some wineries that are kid-friendly and this will be the subject of another blog post.   But let’s put it this way: here you are in Wine Country standing at a bar listening to the winery employee describing the wine that is being served.  Just as you’re going to taste you suddenly hear children screaming or crying.  Believe us, we have experienced this exact scenario and it’s very unpleasant.  It ruins the experience of going wine tasting.  Wine tasting is for adults, period.

We had a particularly unpleasant experience at Artesa Vineyards and Winery in Carneros.  We had been there a few times before and we loved the place, particularly the view of the valley and the architecture of the winery, both of which are spectacular. Artesa has redesigned the tasting room, which is very large, and put some little tables and chairs (though it now looks more like a bar than a tasting room).  The day we went it was crowded, extremely noisy and we were trying to make our way to the bar to get some wine to taste.  Besides having a problem getting the attention of the staff to taste some wine, there were little kids crawling on the floor around us.  Others were running around while their parents were drinking, not paying attention to the children.  We actually had to ask one mother to stop her toddler from crawling between our legs!    The winery personnel were not managing the crowd; those at the bar were so busy pouring wine that they had no time to talk about the wine they were pouring.  So between the kids and the servers, it ended up as two bad experiences. It spoiled the entire visit for us.

Here’s another example.  Once we were in Paso Robles in Central Coast and we are driving in front of Grey Wolf Cellars. It looks more like a private house than a winery. Just from curiosity we stopped to see what they had to offer.  The tiny tasting room was full of beautiful antiques.  Then a couple with their two children came in.  The kids began to touch everything they could reach and trying to play with a guitar that was displayed there.  The woman who was pouring wine was paying more attention to the kids than the customers in front of her.  She stepped out of the bar to stop the children touching the antiques.  It wasn’t surprising that the parents did not see it, because they were busy tasting wine and not paying attention to what their children were doing.  Tasting rooms are for adults, not for children.

All wineries have gift shops. Many sell fragile merchandise such as glasses or chinaware. So imagine kids playing around while their parents are tasting wine.  Many times we’ve experienced children running around in the tasting rooms and gift shops like it was a Toys ‘R’ Us.

So please, if you absolutely want to take your kids in Wine Country, make a few phone calls beforehand to make sure that the winery you want to visit is kid-friendly.  Or read our upcoming post on the subject!