The First Time

In the 1970’s, just after the famous Judgement of Paris showed how great California wines had become, Steve went wine tasting for the first time.  He remembers well the sensation, as he was driving along Route 29 in the Napa Valley, that he was in a wine shop only it wasn’t labels he was passing by but wineries.  Domaine Chandon, Heitz, Louis Martini – all these famous places along the road!  And every place offered something to taste and for free. It was wonderful.

In our travels, we have re-experienced that sensation many times and so can you.  Each visit to a wine-growing region unknown to you brings back that same sense of an adventure about to unroll.  Even with a GPS, you don’t really know where you are going.  Very often, most of the wineries are not very well known to you.  Maybe you have never heard of any of them.  What should you do?

One option is to take a tour, but we do not recommend it.  Tour operators are interested in volume, not quality.  They choose wineries that can accommodate large groups, with wines that appeal to the mass market.  It is better for them to offer wines that everyone can enjoy somewhat than expensive wines and expensive tastings that are oriented to connoisseurs.  It is bad enough when 30 people show up at a winery all wanting to be served at once.  It’s even worse when you’re in that group.  You have no time for conversation, for learning, for savoring something unique.  And you definitely won’t be offered that special wine they keep below the counter for those who are willing to spend more time to really understand a winery’s production.

The best bet is to get to the region you’re visiting and stop at the first winery you see.  It may be a lucky hit, with knowledgeable people, lovely décor and fine wines.  But even if it isn’t, it will have two things you want: a map and someone you can ask: “We’re new here.  Which wineries do you suggest we try?”  Almost without exception, we have found that wine people love to talk and love to give advice.  Your taste may not be the same as theirs, so you might want to say, at your next stop, “The people at Chateau X recommended your wines.  What can you recommend that might be a little different?”  A truly helpful server should ask you, “Well, what kind of wine do you like?” and then direct you to light whites, heavy reds and everything in between.

Of course, this gets a little trickier when the region you are visiting is in a non-English speaking country.  Fortunately, English has become the world’s second language so you can usually have a passable conversation.  We have also engaged in a fair amount of arm-waving, map-pointing and general looking lost.  It has always worked and we have often been directed to some of the most amazing wineries we have ever visited.

The great likelihood, when you’re tasting in a region you’re not familiar with, is that the wines aren’t going to be exactly what you think they’ll be.  For example, a California Syrah is different from a French Syrah which isn’t the same as an Australian Shiraz.  Moreover, a Southern Rhone Syrah is different than one from the north.  You need not only to be open to these differences but to relish them.  That’s what wine tasting is all about.  It’s not a search for novelty for its own sake but rather to enjoy different winemakers’ expressions of the soil, the climate and the traditions of each locale.  When you taste something unexpectedly wonderful, you’ve gotten a sense of what makes wine so fascinating: the variety, the personality, the subtlety and the achievement that each new harvest brings.

Sometimes, you’ll find wines made from grapes you’ve never heard of.  Did you ever have an Insolia?  It’s a wonderful white grape from Sicily that makes some of the most elegant white wines we’ve tasted in a while.  How about Pinotage?  Cannonau? Canaiolo?  Open your mind when you open your mouth and you’ll get the most out of your visit.

Finally, make comparisons with wines you know, but only after you’ve finished for the day.  If you say to yourself, “This is like XYZ Vineyards back home” you’ll always have the taste of XYZ on your mind and on your palate and you’ll find it hard to judge the wines you’re tasting on their own merits.

So, wherever you go, follow the open road.  It leads to Wine Country.

A Lovely Day in the Country

Wine tasting can be a destination activity.  You travel to the capitals of the wine world – Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Tuscany, the Barossa Valley – for the purpose of tasting the wonderful wines they have to offer.  But in other cases, tasting wine is secondary if not incidental to the trip.  Perhaps you’re on vacation in a city that has wineries nearby and you’d like an afternoon away from the urban bustle.  Or you live in such a place and you wake up to find a day too beautiful to stay in town.  So you decide, let’s go to Wine Country, not for serious tasting but just for a pleasant day out.

Here are some tips for making the most of such a day.

Plan ahead.  We don’t mean that you should spend hours studying guides and maps.  But take a quick look on the Web for a locale that has all the things you need: a few wineries, a restaurant and a deli.  There was a time when you really needed to know where you were going.  Nowadays, Google knows and you only have to ask.

 Minimize your driving.  Select a destination that you can get to primarily on major roads and then go there only (and there only).  Don’t lose your time behind the wheel going from winery to winery.  If there are two or three in close proximity to one another, those are the ones to visit today.  Your tasting at Chateau Latour can wait for another day.

Have lunch.  Have a very good lunch.  Have wine with your lunch. If you dine in a restaurant, make it one that’s fun.  For example, when we go wine tasting in Long Island’s North Fork, we often have burgers and sandwiches at the Old Mill Inn in Mattituck.  The attraction is sitting on a dock watching the ducks come begging for French fries and seeing the pleasure boats head out into the Sound.  It’s not great food but it’s great fun.

Shop for something that isn’t wine.  Almost every winery has stuff for sale, from caps and shirts with the winery logo to truly beautiful, unique (often overpriced) products.  You don’t have to buy but the looking can be fun.  And since Wine Country is by definition farm country, you can often find a stand with fruit, vegetables, pies and candy.

Savor the beauty that’s all around you.  There may be exceptions, but in our experience grapes only grow in beautiful places.  The vines in serried rows, like soldiers marching in formation across a hillside, are going to look brilliant, any time of year.  At almost every winery they are aware of what they have and provide a bench or a porch where you can just sit and take in the glory of the scenery.  We both say it fills our hearts.  Fill yours.

Stay as late as you can.  Of course, it depends how much time you need to drive home.  But seeing the vines in the long, golden rays of a summer afternoon – or better yet, a sunset – makes for an unforgettable day in the country.

Taste, don’t drink.  It is so tempting to go to just one more winery and to swallow everything each one has to offer.  But don’t forget that it is alcohol and you have to drive to get back home.  Sip each wine and experience it with all your senses – the aroma, the color, the feel of the glass in your hand, the murmurs of other guests – and if you really like it, buy a bottle to take home with you.

Cindy Pawlcyn’s Garden

This is not a restaurant review, even though it’s almost about a restaurant, one of our favorite restaurants, but just a little to the left.  It feels as though Mustards Grill ( has been along Route 29 north of Yountville forever, but actually it opened in 1983.  Steve would have sworn that he ate there on his first trip to Napa Valley in the 1970’s, but evidently it wasn’t so.  But we have eaten there a lot of times since.  The outside looks like an old fashioned road stop restaurant but the inside is bistro style and cozy. You’ve got to love a place that proudly proclaims on its outside banner that they serve “steaks, chops, ribs, garden produce and way too many wines”.  There have been many memorable meals there and way too much wine, but this is about the garden adjoining the restaurant.


Photo courtesy of Mustards Grill

The founder, proprietor and resident guru of Mustards is Cindy Pawlcyn.  She also owns Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, a restaurant located on a back street (of course) in St. Helena.  It has the same sort of food but a very different ambiance. For one thing, there’s no garden.  Cindy (evidently no one calls her Ms. Pawlcyn) erected a vegetable and herb garden on two acres just besides Mustard s, so that she could have fresh ingredients for her kitchen(s).  There are other restaurants with private gardens, Thomas Keller’s across from French Laundry being the most famous.  But no other that we are aware of is so accessible to the public as is Cindy’s.

Diners are invited to stroll there before or after a meal.  (There’s no prohibition against walking through the garden without dining, but we would not recommend it.  Mustards’ web site says they also grow winter vegetables, too.  What a wonderful feeling walking among herbs and vegetables in a garden just outside the restaurant you’re about to walk into.  Or after your meal, you can smell all the aromas of those fresh ingredients that were just on your plates.

We are both city folks, but Lucie has family in rural areas who have what the Quebecois call jardins potagers, or simply vegetable gardens, so all this isn’t quite that unusual to her.  She rubs the herbs lightly between her fingers to extract and smell the essential oils.  Steve knows nothing about gardening and he is fascinated to see what a string bean or a pepper looks like before it’s ready to eat.

There’s fun in seeing what your food looked like before it even was ready to go to the kitchen.  Perhaps more so, it keeps you in mind that, for all the fun of going to Wine Country to taste exceptional wines, you could stay home and open bottles if all you wanted was to taste wine.  When you’re in Cindy’s garden, you know you’re in the country.  We both love Cindy’s restaurants, particularly Mustards.

St. Supéry

St. Supéry

We read in Wine Spectator recently that the family that founded the St. Supéry winery is selling it to the Chanel company.  Chanel is best known for perfume, of course, but it already has winery holdings in France.  We can only hope that the new owners continue the excellent tasting experience in the winery’s St. Helena location.

As you pull onto the property from Napa valley’s Route 29 you see a large white clapboard house on your right.  It’s called the Atkinson House.  St. Supéry has restored the house, both inside and out, and it is open to the public by appointment.  It features a living museum of a late 1800 vintner’s life.  This historic old home is an archetype of what anyone would expect a prosperous St. Helena farmer to live in…a century ago.

The Atkinson House belies the handsome building that contains the tasting room.  The main tasting room itself is modern and airy with windows that overlook the vineyard.  They also have a lot of merchandise for sale.


The Atkinson House at St. Supéry  (photograph courtesy of St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery)

Most of the time, we recommend that visitors just belly up to the bar to get an overall sense of what a winery produces.  This is certainly true at St. Supéry, where the tasting room is capacious enough even to accommodate weekend crowds.

As we have written elsewhere, there are some good reasons to take special seated tastings.  [See By Appointment Only]  At St. Supéry, the special tastings are well worth considering.  They have several, including a wine and cheese pairing and a class that they call Aromatherapy with a Corkscrew, which we haven’t tried.  We did take and highly recommend their Vineyard to Glass tour.  An experienced sommelier hands you a glass of wine and then escorts you outside to walk through the vineyards.  St. Supéry places great emphasis on terroir, and when you can see the ground and the vines where the wine you are tasting comes from, you really understand the inherent relationship among dirt, sky, water and wine.  If you go, don’t miss the exhibit of the different soils in their vineyards.

The tasting room employees we have encountered were welcoming and knowledgeable at St. Supéry.   In addition to the people, the architecture reinforces the pleasure of a tasting.  The gallery on the upper floor is usually worth a look, as well.

In the past we have bought St. Supéry’s Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  We especially enjoy their Bordeaux blend, which they call Elu or “the Elect” in French.  Elu should definitely be included in any tasting.  Make sure to see the bottle, because the label is especially attractive.