Taking Classes at Joseph Phelps

One of the reasons we enjoy visiting wineries is the opportunity it gives us to learn more about wine. Okay, we like tasting it, too, but let’s focus here on the educational experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-versed server who has the time to chat, you can learn a lot that way. For a more structured and formal educational experience, there are the lectures you can attend at Joseph Phelps Vineyards (www.josephphelps.com).

On their web site, the winery refers to these lectures, rather grandly, as Exceptional Wine Experiences. For once, a bit of marketing hype is justified. These lectures are exceptional; they are quite an experience; and they’re about wine. They’re also $75 per person and last an hour and a half (with additional time for tasting). To our minds, this price is well worth it.

The first one we attended was an introduction to wine tasting. This one is not listed on their current schedule, alas. If you’ve never paid much attention to wine tasting, this really showed what to do and what to look for. Even for those with some experience, there was a lot to learn. In this lecture, as with most of them, the teacher arrives with a basket of Phelps wines, starting usually with a white and usually finishing with Phelps’ remarkable flagship wine, Insignia, a Bordeaux blend.

Perhaps our most memorable lecture was the one about aromas. Lucie’s sense of smell is rather acute, while Steve’s nose doesn’t always pick up much, so Lucie was able to get a great deal more out of it. But even Steve learned to appreciate what the bouquet of a wine has to tell the attentive taster. The lecture was memorable because we were there on a rainy October afternoon and were the only ones in attendance. The Insignia was open, so when Steve asked for a little more, we were told, “Sure, help yourself”.

The lecture on wine barrels, or cooperage, didn’t seem all that interesting beforehand but wound up being the most instructive we have attended. The impact that the barrel has on what goes into your mouth was astounding to learn about. Wine makers tend to brag on their 100% new French oak barrels, but we learned that that isn’t always a good thing, that American and Hungarian oak bring other qualities to a wine and that some used barrels actually give a wine better balance. We are aware of cooperage now whenever we go wine tasting.

Most recently we sat in on the lecture about blending Insignia. You are presented with most but not all of the individual wines that go into a bottle of Insignia and then you are given the chance to mix your own. Finally they serve a bottle of the actual wine so that you know what professional winemakers did with the grapes. We learned two things for sure: the professionals are way better at it than we are and Insignia is a very good wine. In the outdoor tasting afterwards, with a beautiful view of the valley, they opened a library bottle of Insignia so that you would learn what the latest release would grow into.

There are few ways to spend an afternoon in Wine Country that are as rewarding as one of these lectures and a tasting of Phelps’ wonderful wines.

Visiting David Coffaro

Early in the year 2000, Steve found a wallet in a New York taxi. Checking the contents, he found that the owner lived in Windsor, CA. He called, left a message on the answering machine and shortly after received a call from the rightful owner. When that fellow came to pick up his wallet, he offered Steve a reward, which was refused. Then, a few weeks later, a box with three bottles arrived in Steve’s office, a gift from the wallet-owner. One of these was from David Coffaro Estate Vineyard in Dry Creek (http://www.coffaro.com); in an accompanying note, the man described David Coffaro as a “mad genius”.

Fast forward to mid-September of that year. Steve and Lucie took their first trip to Wine Country together and stopped at a rather ordinary-looking house at the intersection of Dry Creek Road and Yoakim Bridge Road. A bearded guy in sandals, shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt asked what we wanted. We said we were there for a tasting and he said that the tasting room was closed for the harvest. Steve pleaded a bit and said that Lucie had come all the way from Québec and that we’d heard that Mr. Coffaro was a “mad genius”. The man replied, “I don’t know about genius, but I’m sure I’m mad. So come on, I’ll open a bottle and have the rest for dinner.” That, of course, was David Coffaro. If you ever want to experience the “madness” of a unique winemaker, this is the winery for you.

We’ve been back many times. We’ve even joined the Coffaro wine club. And every time we see David, he’s wearing that same outfit. (To be fair, one time in December he abandoned the sandals for sneakers.) The winery is little more than an oversized garage with a lot of barrels in it. The tasting area is a small bar in one corner, festooned with memorabilia of Mohammed Ali and the Oakland Raiders. The back of the winery/garage has a sofa and a huge screen. It seems that David and his wife, Pat, like to show movies now and again for the neighbors. Not your typical tasting room but, hey, it’s decorated in Mad Genius Deco.

And then there are the wines. Everybody has a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Zinfandel; so does Coffaro. Believe us, nobody else is making blends that include grapes such as Aglianico, Souzao, Lagrein, Alvarelhao, Peloursin, Carignan, Barbera and Tannat. No one else is even growing most of those grapes, so a visit at Coffaro gives you the opportunity to taste some wines not available anywhere else. And as long as the bottles are in stock, you’ll have the chance to taste an amazing variety of wines, from the usual things to the truly unique.

You’ll generally have a chance to chat with David himself, or if not, with his assistant winemaker. Once, again during the crush, we visited and there were some vats of freshly squeezed juice bubbling away at the door. David handed us a stick and said, “That vat is fermenting too quickly. Go break the cap.” So we became “assistant winemakers” for the day. He also handed us each a plastic glass and invited us to taste the juice.

If things aren’t too busy – and sometimes even if they are – David will say, “How about a barrel tasting?” He’ll walk you over to some barrels, grab a wine thief and pour a little of this or that in your glass. After you’ve tasted it, he’ll add a little of that or this and ask you how you like it. Now you’ve joined his research department.

One thing you may notice is that all Coffaro wines have screw caps. David Coffaro is an evangelist for screw caps and was one of the first in California to use them. He has been a strong voice promoting the replacement of corks for screw caps. He strongly believes that wine can age as well with a screw cap as with a cork, without the risk of spoilage. (Steve shares that opinion but Lucie prefers the corks even if we unfortunately sometimes get some corked wines.)

David is also the “weather man” of Dry Creek. He installed a weather data station in his vineyards. The data is uploaded to his website every 15 minutes and is available through his website.

All of Coffaro’s wines are huge, powerful and rather high in alcohol. Most are estate grown, right in the backyard. There are better wines to be tasted, but there are few tastings that are as unique or more fun.

Kid-friendly wineries

As we’ve said before, children and bars are not a good fit. However, some wineries are kid-friendly and we will mention a few here that we’ve been to in the past where both parents and children can have a good time.

If you’re planning to take your kids, it might be a good idea to make a few phone calls to the wineries you’re thinking of visiting and ask if kids are welcome, or even allowed. In nice weather, some will invite you to sit outside for the tasting so the children can play. Some will offer crayons and paper; some will give the children juice. Paraduxx welcomes kids and even dogs in their large garden behind the winery where kids have games to play with, while their parents have their tasting sitting in lawn chairs. At Plumpjack Winery they give lollipops and Chardonnay-grape sodas to the little ones and invite them to play outside on their grounds.

Picnics are fun for the whole family but very few wineries now have picnic areas. Those that do got their permits before the law restricting them was enacted. It is fun to buy a bottle of wine and bring it outside to have a picnic with your kids. Of course you have to buy from that winery if you want to use their picnic area; it’s only fair.

The winery V. Sattui in Saint Helena makes picnicking a particular attraction. In addition to winetasting, you can buy your meal in their Italian Market Place and Deli where they have a great selection of cheeses, sandwiches, salads, chicken, breads, pizza, etc. Of course, you can pick up a bottle of wine in their huge shop, buy your food and walk outside, choose a table on their picnic grounds and have a great time with your kids. We have done it a few times (but without kids) and always enjoyed it. Do remember that bringing food from outside is not allowed. Honestly there’s no need for that; they have everything you want in their deli.


Some wineries, such as Château St. Jean, sell charcuterie, cheese, bread sticks, crackers, etc. On a beautiful warm day, what a pleasant thing it is to stop at one of those wineries with your family, have a wine tasting and/or buy a bottle of wine and some of their food and sit outside looking at the vineyard while you’re having your lunch. We do that as often as we can (weather permitting). It adds so much pleasure to your wine tasting experience

Over the years that we have been in California tasting wine, one of our favorite places to stop for a tasting and a picnic has been Preston of Dry Creek, now called Preston Farm & Winery. They have a large picnic ground and welcome you to have a picnic there, as long as you buy a bottle of their wines. You’ll enjoy being there and so will your children. If you’re visiting on a week-day, you can have fun playing bocce with your kids.   We’ve seen families having picnics there and kids running around and playing with the many cats that run free. Yes, at Preston Winery they are cat lovers and there are cats everywhere that will come to you to beg for food and let you pet them. They used to make beautiful posters featuring a cat sipping their wine. Being a cat lover herself, of course Lucie bought one of those and had it framed.

Besides making great Rhône style wines (our favorite is called “L. Preston”), the barn-style winery itself is very rustic, surrounded by not only vineyards but olive trees. Preston is an organic farm and winery, with home-grown vegetables and fruits. They also make delicious olive oil. In the tasting room, they always display some freshly baked bread to sample with their olive oil. Outside, they have a farm store where you can buy some of their organic products or just stroll around and feel like you’re stepping back in time.

So please, if you absolutely want to take your children with you in Wine Country, make a few phone calls beforehand to make sure that the winery you want to visit is kid-friendly.

Have fun. Cheers!