Go Back, You Might Fall in Love Again

A visit to a tasting room may be the only way to learn about unfamiliar wines. In some cases, there may be a winery or wines that you have always liked in the past that you think have taken a turn for the worse. There might be a new owner or a new winemaker, a change in philosophy, renovations in the tasting room or maybe just a bad year. We recommend that you give them another try a few years later. Maybe they are simply not as good as you’d like to remember…but maybe they have returned to form.

Let us tell you about two experiences we had recently that underscore this advice.

Limerick Lane (www.limericklanewines.com) has the distinction of being the first winery we visited together year ago. It became our favorite source of Zinfandels and later one of our favorites for Pinot Noir. We even joined their wine club to receive shipments of wine throughout the year. At the time, Limerick Lane was owned by Michael Collins, who sold it to Jake and Scot Bilbro in 2011. We didn’t care for the first wines we tasted from the new proprietors and dropped out of the club. (In a recent article in Wine Spectator, the Bilbro’s indicated that they weren’t as pleased as they could have been with their first wines, either.)

That’s about the wine, but what about the experience of wine tasting there? The winery is approached along a long road – Limerick Lane, of course – in the furthest northeast section of the Russian River region. It’s a bucolic area and there are none of the grand buildings that house wineries elsewhere; this tasting room is just an addition to the side of the industrial building where the wine is made, facing some of their vineyards. The primary attraction, other than the wine itself, is the fellow who will pour it for you, Peter Leary. He has been at Limerick Lane for over a decade. Peter always has a story to tell, a little something to enliven your tasting and really knows and explains what he is serving. Let’s also add that he has a very good memory; even after four years of not seeing us, he remembered us as soon as we walked in the tasting room.

We were delighted to find that the Zins had returned to our taste and a bit saddened that Pinot Noir had been de-emphasized. We were also quite pleasantly surprised to learn that Limerick Lane was now quite sought after. The wine club was no more and several of their offerings were allocated (meaning that you have to be on the list to have the opportunity to buy just a few bottles.) We immediately returned to the mailing list, happy that the Zinfandel we had always liked the best remained available without allocation. Only when we returned home did we learn that Wine Spectator had listed four Limerick Lane bottlings among the top-scoring Zinfandels of the 2012 vintage…including our favorite!

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Dry Creek Vineyard (www.drycreekvineyard.com) had long been one of our favorite wineries to visit. The building itself is a gorgeous Wine Country style building, covered with vines, set in a broad lawn with many shady trees. There’s even a little trail for visitors to walk through the vineyard. Picnickers are welcome and the winery is literally in walking distance of the Dry Creek General Store. They also sell some fancy pork rillettes, salamis and cheeses in the tasting room. It’s only fair that you cannot bring any other alcohol with you (it’s also a state law) but the tasting room will gladly sell you a bottle or even wines by the glass. It is an utterly charming location for a lunch or a lazy afternoon.


Photo courtesy of Dry Creek Vineyard

Inside, the whole theme of the tasting room, and of the labels as well, is sailing. There’s a big painting of  a sailboat behind the bar and the room is decorated with nautical gear, all very welcoming.

Back in the early days of our wine tasting careers, we picked up some very nice but rather small (and free!) glasses with our visit. Back then, the focus of our attention was their premium Merlot. Alas, on one occasion we arrived there to find that they had de-emphasized the Merlot in favor of single vineyard Zinfandels, which at the time were not to our tastes…and they weren’t giving any glasses anymore. Disappointed that we could not get our Merlot, it took us several years to return to this winery.

On our recent visit, we were delighted to find that the Zinfandels and other red wines were very much to our tastes, indeed. The fellow who served us, Bill Langley, very patiently listened to us, opened one bottle after the other and gave us a thorough grounding in Dry Creek’s production. We bought a bottle that day, had it for dinner that night, came back the day after and bought a few more. As soon as we came back home, we joined their wine club and we are very excited about it.

Both stories give a lesson. If you once enjoyed a wine tasting and then had reason to change your mind, go back another time and try it again. You might fall in love all over again with the wines. Maybe it wasn’t the wine that changed, maybe it was you. Or maybe they just caught up with your tastes.

Both stories also have a lot to do with our wine tasting experience at either winery. Not only the wines but Peter and Bill made the difference in our experience at both wineries. They’re friendly guys, interesting to listen to and also interested to listen to us and our past tasting experience at their respective wineries. On top of everything, they made the difference in our tasting experience and explained us why their wines are what they are now. That was enough for us to buy their wines and sign up with their clubs.

Thanks guys. We’re back.


By Appointment Only

In California and in many other wine-producing regions of the world, the typical experience of wine-tasting is to pull up to the winery, stand at a bar and sip selected wines, pay a fee and leave. If you have the time and interest, you might ask a few questions and learn a bit about the wines and the people who make them. There are certain wineries and certain occasions that call for more formality. You have to call for an appointment and show up at a specified time.

This is essentially the only way to taste the wines from the grands chateaux in Bordeaux. It is also necessary at the grandfather of all Brunellos, Biondi-Santi in Montalcino, Italy. There are a growing number of wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties that require an appointment. From the wineries’ points of view, there may be a number of reasons for this policy. Often it’s because the winery is so small that there are not enough people to support having a tasting room staff. One such that we have enjoyed in the past is Acorn winery in Russian River, a mom and pop operation with a real mom and pop, Betsy and Bill Nachbaur, offering you tastes of their wines.

Others just don’t want to deal with crowds and so limit the number of visitors. Everything is usually very informal and you get a lot of personal attention. We recently visited A. Raffanelli in Dry Creek where we tasted Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in their barrel room, with the wines served by a member of their production staff.

If you are interested to take a tour of a winery’s vineyards and production facilities, you usually need an appointment. This is only fair because they need to schedule workers to lead the tours and cannot accommodate too many people.

Finally, there are those who require appointments because they want to underscore their exclusivity. This may not be as snobbish as it sounds; they may sell extremely well-made wines at extremely high prices and see no reason to share their products with those who are unlikely to appreciate them. Yes, that’s snobbish. But when you are being asked to pay high prices for a tasting – $50 at Viader on Howell Mountain; $75 at Verité in Chalk Hill – you don’t want to be bellying up to the bar with the riff-raff. In other words, if you’re willing to pay that much, you become a bit of a snob as well. It is, in many cases, the only way you can have the opportunity to taste some very rare and pricy wines. However, you have to understand that you might be there for an hour or more listening to the whole story of the family, the building, the winemaker, the vineyard, and how great and beautiful their wines are plus dealing with the chit-chat of the person serving you. Too many of those in one day can be annoying.

One of the best reasons to sign up for an appointment is to avoid the madness if you are visiting Napa and Sonoma on a weekend. Saturday and Sundays (and sometimes Friday afternoons) can find tasting rooms packed, noise levels high, and large groups preventing you from getting a little wine in your glass, much less having a conversation with a knowledgeable server. You may even have the unpleasant experience of sharing the space with an overserved bachelorette party. If nothing else, an appointment guarantees you some tranquility while you’re having your tasting.

In many cases, tastings that require appointments are sit-down affairs, with a server who really knows what he or she is pouring. Often they include a tour. (There are significant exceptions to sitting around a table. Chappelet on Pritchard Hill, for example, offers a walking tour, tasting as you go.) All are fairly lengthy; you won’t be able to sip one or two wines and then leave. As we said, you’re in for the long haul, often more than an hour. Some are worth it. For example, the tasting at Jordan in Alexander Valley is conducted in a lovely library and dining room in a faux French chateau. Alas, there have been occasions when we felt trapped in a room with ten strangers, counting the minutes until we could gracefully escape. No matter the quality of the wine, the experience can be claustrophobic. We’re afraid that Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel fall into that category.

Here’s a nice little secret. “By Appointment Only” doesn’t always mean what it says. If a tasting room has the capacity, they will probably accommodate walk-ins, especially if you ask nicely. We were welcomed in that manner at Passalacqua in Dry Creek recently and were rewarded with a splendid seated tasting on a veranda overlooking seemingly endless vineyards. The staff at Tamber Bey in Calistoga found room for us on a Saturday. That was kind of them, but even with an appointment-only policy, they were quite full with large groups of visitors and it was very noisy.

Our advice is to use appointments judiciously. They make sense if there’s a specific wine you’re dying to try. If your travel plans mean that you must be tasting on a weekend, they can alleviate a lot of the unpleasantness that is an unfortunate part of Saturdays and Sundays in Wine Country.


Not for Everyone

Wine tasting is an avocation that can be followed around the world. Between the two of us, we have gone wine tasting in France, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Québec and of course in many places in the United States. It is no secret that California has the most wineries and that the most famous ones are just north of San Francisco, in Napa and Sonoma counties. But only in these counties, to our knowledge and experience, are there destination wineries that are more about the place than about the wine.

There are many wineries that are in buildings of architectural interest. Chateau Montelena, Jordan, Duckhorn and the new Stag’s Leap Vineyards spring to mind. However, the reason to go these places is not to admire the structures but to enjoy the wines they make. The beauty of the places enhances the experience, to be sure, but the wine’s the thing. There are others where the winery is designed to awe the visitor before the first sip is taken. The experience is about architecture, interior design, high-end shopping and oh, yes, there is wine to be tasted. A few of the leading exponents of this view of wine tasting are Darioush in Napa, Castello di Ameroso in Calistoga and the Francis Ford Coppola winery in Geyserville.

IMG_2557Darioush Winery

Now, it should be stated that Darioush makes good wine and is best known for its Shiraz. The owner is a wealthy Iranian emigrant who, in entering the wine trade, decided to recreate the glory that was ancient Persia. It is truly beautiful and very much over the top. We like the wine but not the wine tasting experience when we have visited there. It’s just not for us.

Castello di Amoroso is a replica of a castle in Tuscany and a rather good replica at that. It attracts hordes of tourists. There is even a fee to enter the castle. It’s hard to believe that all those tourists are there just to taste an American Sangiovese. And at Coppola Winery, the movie director Francis Coppola, in addition to having a museum of his films, has a swimming pool available to vacationers. No more need be said.

Which is not to say that places like these are not for you. Wine tasting in Northern California has become Disneyland for adults and if that’s what appeals to you on your vacation, go right ahead. We like Disneyland; we just don’t want to go there for wine. That’s us, not you.

Even if you agree with us, we think you should try these palaces on occasion. For one thing, the wines can be very good and shouldn’t be overlooked. For another, just because we find Darioush to be too, too much you may not agree. After all, why is a winery visit that combines fine art (Hess Collection, Clos Pegase), or beautiful views (Silverado, William Hill) or fine food (Domaine Chandon) any less worthy than one that includes a palatial edifice? Wine tasting, like wine itself, is a matter of taste.

Our tastes run towards wineries where we can chat with someone very knowledgeable (especially if it is the winemaker) and enjoy a wonderful and personalized experience built around very fine wines. Often, tasting at these vineyards requires an appointment and in some cases can be rather pricey. Some would find wine tasting in these circumstances to be snobbish or intimidating. Opus One and Verité, for two examples, might fall into this category and we do love their wines. Again, it’s certainly not for everyone.

If you have some experience visiting wineries in Napa and Sonoma, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you like and what you don’t like. If you are new to wine tasting, it’s worthwhile to read up in advance and try different sorts of wineries that seem to appeal to your taste and your pocketbook. And even if you know your way around, try something that breaks your personal mold every now and again. You might be pleasantly surprised.