Living Large in Oregon

For us, wine tasting is fairly rudimentary: rent a car, drive to the wineries, go from place to place sampling as much as we feel like with ample prudence, then drive back to wherever we started the day.  We watch tourists pour off of buses with snobbish scorn: “What do they know about wine?”  Even worse are the stretch limos that shuttle bachelorette parties from winery to winery, fifteen previously over-served twenty-somethings who scream and giggle and generally drive both winery employees and serious tasters to run, not walk, in the other direction.  And it’s not just giggly girls.    We see long black Cadillacs pull up with a gang of conventioneers playing hooky in Wine Country.  They can disrupt a tasting room from the moment they enter.  Maybe some of these people really do appreciate what they’re tasting, but whether because of noisiness or haughtiness they do spoil the experience for us and maybe everyone else.

And then once – just once – we were the ones filling the limo with people who had little or no familiarity with wine tasting.  At one point in his career, Steve led a national consulting practice and held a leadership meeting on a Friday in Portland, Oregon.  Since there was budget for “team-building”, he invited the consultants and their significant others to take a day trip that Saturday to the Willamette Valley.  The event was held in mid-January, and the day dawned brisk and sunny.

In a rented, chauffeured stretch, nine of us headed for the hills of northern Oregon.  The Willamette Valley is only forty minutes from downtown Portland, if there is no traffic and at that time of year visitors and thus cars are few.  None of Steve’s colleagues had been wine tasting before so there was both expectancy and a little trepidation in the car as we drove south.

If you arrive in the little town of Dundee, you’ll find Argyle winery on the main road.  Argyle is best known for its sparkling wines and Chardonnays and the Pinot Noirs aren’t bad either.  They have a tasting room, with the vines elsewhere in the valley.  Our friends seemed a little ill at ease at first but a few sips loosened them up.  “Hey, this is fun” was the general sentiment.

We continued down the Pacific Highway, had lunch and turned up Archery Summit Road, leading to the Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin and Domaine Serene wineries.  Each one was higher up the hill and therefore had a better view.  This was really the heart of Pinot Noir country, with several award winning wines for all of us to try.

We all learned a few things that day.  For one, Steve’s colleagues learned about wine tasting.  The day truly did build some team spirit, experiencing new things together.  (It was our first trip to the Willamette Valley, so we were learning as well.)  It was fun to see our friends open up to the wine tasting experience.  Of course, they had all drunk wine before but few if any paid much attention to it.  They had rarely if ever compared wines side by side and tried to detect the differences.  It was our pleasure to share that appreciation with them.

We quickly realized that it’s nice to have someone else do the driving.  Of course, that makes a visit more expensive but it is also less stressful.  We still didn’t want to get drunk, but we could take a few more second sips without worries.  The stretch limo added some glamor, but other than for the size of the group, it wasn’t necessary; just being chauffeured around was more than sufficient.

And we re-learned that wine tasting in the off-season offers its own rewards: no buses, no crowds, and time to savor the wines because the server wasn’t stressed either.  If ever life presents you with the chance to visit Wine Country that way, take it.


The word caliza means limestone in Spanish.  In winemaking, it means soil that is rich in this mineral so it adds depth and minerality to the grapes grown in it and to the wines made from those grapes.  It is also the name of a winery in Paso Robles where we guess the dirt is full of caliza, or limestone.  It is not exactly an easy winery to find.  You drive down Route 101 from downtown Paso Robles, turn off on Route 46 and then search for Anderson Road.  Up at the end of it is Caliza.

We happen to like their wines and have joined the Caliza wine club.   They specialize in Rhône grapes and make an excellent Syrah and a wine called Azimuth, a typical Rhône blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.  It’s our favorite of their wines.  They also throw in some oddball grapes including Tempranillo and Primitivo.  One thing can be said about their wines in general: they’re not for the faint of heart.  They are all power hitters and approach or surpass 15% alcohol.  Eat a hearty breakfast before visiting.

The tasting room is in a hacienda-like building nestled at the bottom of vine-covered hills.  The room itself is open and airy, very bright and sunny, with a long bar.  Like many wineries in the Paso Robles region they are open only Friday through Sunday and by appointment on the other days.  You will be served a white or two, maybe a rosé and then you can get into the reds.  If you’re lucky, your server will be Carl Bowker or his wife, Pam, who own the winery and make the wine.

Theirs is the kind of story that those of us who enjoy visiting Wine Country always dream about.  Carl was a businessman who grew tired of the nine-to-five grind.  They visited Europe and became dedicated wine tasters themselves.  Carl attended some winemaking courses and, lo and behold, bought some land, planted some grapes and they became wine people.  If you don’t get to meet Carl or Pam, don’t worry; their story is printed on the walls.  But if you do meet them, especially on a quiet day, they’ll be glad to tell you their story.

In some ways, the best part of a visit to Caliza (other than the wine, of course) is the absence of Napa-style excess.  The tasting room is pleasant but is not likely to be featured in architecture magazines.  Your experience there is about the wine, not the building and the grounds.  The people are friendly and have the time and interest to talk with you and explain their philosophy of winemaking and the nature of their wines.  In other words, Caliza offers a wine tasting experience that focuses more on the taster than on their own magnificence.

If you’re going to Paso Robles, we definitely recommend that you make Caliza one of your stops.  And say hello to Carl and Pam for us.

Tasting Port in Lisbon

While Portugal has some excellent table wines, its glory is in the dessert wines, from grapes grown along the Douro River in the north of the country.  The grapes have names that are strange to American ears: Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão and Tinta Amarela.  The name of the wine they are made into comes from the city at the mouth of the Douro, called Porto.  Hence the wine famous around the world for its richness, depth and high alcoholic content is called Port.

But if you are in Lisbon you are three hours south of Porto. So if you want to taste Port, where do you go?  The answer to that question is very simple: the Instituto Dos Vinhos Do Douro e Do Porto (the Institute for the Wines of the Douro and of Porto).  It’s located at 45 Rua São Pedro de Alcântara, in the district called the Barrio Alto or the “high neighborhood”.  The building is an elegant old palace on a street that winds its way down the hill towards the River Tagus.  The Instituto is the august body that determines if a winery’s top production in any given year is good enough to be merited as a vintage Port, so they know their way around this delicious beverage.

The Instituto operates an elegant tasting room called the Solar, where admission is free.  The first thing you notice upon entering is that it is very dark.  Once your eyes adjust, you see that it looks very much like a club room, very hushed with large easy chairs for you to sink into as you sip your Port.  And oh, the Port you have to choose from!  There are more than 300 of them from more than 60 producers, ranging from simple ruby Ports to mature vintage Ports.  Prices range from a few euros to twenty-plus per glass.  The low end is a real bargain; the top end is also a bargain for what you get.

Solar Lisboa renovado (6)(1)

Photograph courtesy of the Instituto Dos Vinhos Do Douro e Do Porto

For the most part, the best Ports are sold only by the bottle, so you need to be with a group to savor these extra special wines.  It’s quite a show if you do.  Your server arrives with the bottle cradled in his arm, wiping away the accumulation of dust.  He lays it gently into a cradle that has a small crank.  In order to avoid pouring sediment into your glass, he uses the crank to gently tilt the bottle so that only unsullied liquid gets there.  He’ll serve you a plate of almonds to accompany your selection.  You are now officially in wine-lovers’ heaven.

If you want to taste by the glass, you are hardly left out of the fun.  You can try all sorts of combinations, such as the range from bottom to top of one producer.  This is best if you already have some knowledge of Port and have a favorite Port house.  Or to gain some knowledge of which houses you like, try tasting similar wines from multiple makers.  So for example, you can sample late bottled vintage (LBV) wines from Grahams, Taylor Fladgate, Dow and Fonseca side by side or one after the other.

Another good tasting is to try a vertical of tawny ports that contain a variety of well-aged wine from various vineyards (or quintas).  You can compare one winery’s 10-year, 20-year and 30-year tawnies.  Needless to say, the older the wine, the more it costs.  There are even some 40-year old tawnies that are quite pricy but are an exquisite experience.  Steve once tasted a 40-year old Burmester there and has never forgotten it.

Once you leave the Solar, turn left and walk a hundred or so feet.  There’s a little park with the best view overlooking downtown Lisbon and the Alfama hill across the way.  Don’t miss it.

The Solar is open until midnight, opening at 11:00 am on weekdays and 3:00 pm on Saturdays.  It’s closed on Sundays and holidays, of which there are quite a few in Portugal.  We recommend that, since the days are so lovely, you shouldn’t spend them indoors.  Go see the sunset over Lisbon and then taste in the evening hours.


Jazz and Wine, New Orleans Style

There are many restaurants that offer a jazz brunch.  Usually, they are neither good jazz not good food.  Two for the price of one often means not much at all, even for the price.  A wonderful exception is Bacchanal Wine in New Orleans.  As the name implies, it is really a wine bar first with jazz as an additional benefit.  It is also a wine store with a pretty wide-ranging selection and a café with a menu that isn’t very wide-ranging at all. The food is more in the way of nibbles, with a soup and a sandwich available as well.

There’s jazz most of the day, starting with lunch.  Jazz, wine and food are served in a courtyard in the back, or upstairs if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Now, about the wine.  While Bacchanal does have formal wine tastings (Wednesdays and Saturdays), the wines they have on offer at the bar are easy to treat as a wine-tasting.  They are all reasonably priced at around $8.00 a glass.  But if you go on a Monday, such as we did, they are all sold at $5.00.  At that price a couple can sample quite a lot.  We had the opportunity to taste two Rosés (Spanish and South African), two sparkling wines (American and French) and three reds: a Malbec from Argentina, a Nebbiolo from Langhe and a Rioja Tempranillo.  Some of those weren’t glassfuls but rather sips to see if we liked them.  A few we didn’t but most of them we did.  A nice feature is that the wine store supplies the bar, so if you like something in particular, you can buy it and take it home.

We had particular fun with the jazz.  The musician was Raphael Bas from Southwest France.  He plays Gypsy jazz (also called manouche) on guitar and harmonica. He is a special favorite of ours, whom we’ve heard play and sing for about a decade when we visit New Orleans – which we do a lot.  That day he was accompanied by Matt Schreiber on the accordion.  You can listen to Raphael at

bacchanal2Raphael and Matt play indoors on a rainy day

A word about the location.  It’s a long way from the French Quarter in a sector called Bywater, probably because it’s by the waters of the Mississippi River.  The road there, the extension of the same Chartres Street that’s so pretty in the French Quarter, is desolate and industrial, with a shipyard just across the street.  When you do arrive at Bacchanal, you may well think you’re going into a dump, more of a tumbledown saloon that a place for wine and jazz.  Take heart; it’s better inside and in the courtyard.  It’s not a place to walk to, so you’d better take a cab and then get a number to call a cab to go back, because there are none trawling this neighborhood.  The bar staff will help you with a number if you don’t have one.

Wine Tasting and Education in Your Own Town

We are lucky to live in one of the most exciting and amazing cities in the world, New York City, which has everything and so much to offer.  For wine lovers, there are wine tastings all around the city, usually sponsored by wine stores and often free of charge.  Some wine stores advertise their events in the newspapers, some on their website or in their stores.  It is a great opportunity to discover a new wine or to meet the winemaker.

Once Sherry-Lehmann (one of the finer wine stores in New York) had a tasting of Napa Valley Stag’s Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon (which happened to be one of Lucie’s top favorites) and had invited the founder and very famous winemaker of Stag’s Leap, Mr. Warren Winiarski.  We knew about Mr. Winiarski from the book Judgment of Paris, which told how its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won first place against ten top French and California red wines in a blind taste test by leading French wine experts.  Without hesitation, Lucie took the subway with the intention, of course, of buying a couple of bottles of Artemis, but particularly to have the chance to meet with Mr. Winiarski.  She had a nice chat with him, had him sign our bottles and even had a little extra, a kiss on the cheek from the famous Mr. Winiarski.   “What an interesting and charming man!” she still saysThis is an opportunity to meet with the guy that made the wine you love so much, or the one you’re about to discover, and you’ll never forget that encounter with the winemaker whenever you open one of his bottles.

There are so many classes that one can take, from the classes for the beginners, to a Pinot Noir lecture and tasting, to Wine and Food Pairing, to Italian Wines, etc.  Those classes usually include a lecture and a wine tasting, often served with bread and cheese.  It is a great chance to learn about wine without leaving your own town.  Should you have never heard about those classes in your town, we would suggest you walk to your favorite wine store and ask them; if they do not have any wine tasting or classes, maybe you could suggest them to do so.

As we said, living in New York City offers a lot of opportunities where so many wine stores have wine classes and wine tastings.  We have been attending some of those classes and always go away with more knowledge, be it a class to discover different wine making regions of Italy, a tasting of American versus French Pinot Noir, food and wine pairing or Rhône wines.

We love to travel to Wine Country, but we also love to stop at a wine store and have a tasting … without leaving town!


Wine tasting in Sicily is unlike other places we have been, even in Italy.  For one thing, there is no essential place to go to, no Medoc or Napa or Tuscany.  The Sicilians grow grapes and make wine almost everywhere on the island.  For another, unless you are a real specialist in Italian wines, you probably haven’t heard of any of the better wines made in Sicily.  Finally, most of the Sicilian wines available in the US, until recently, were either overly acidic or overly sweet, so there’s not a lot of incentive to find the wineries and taste what they have to offer.

Donnafugata, in the town of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily, can really change your thinking about Sicilian wines.

20150917_105512The Donnafugata winery facilities

The name of the winery is taken from the great Sicilian novel, Il Gattepardo by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.  It means “the fleeing woman” in Italian and in that language the word does roll off the tongue.  However, to American ears, particularly ears that are near Brooklyn, it sounds so much like the dismissive “fuggedaboutit” that is attributed to that borough.  Try to overcome this prejudice when you visit Marsala.

Unfortunately, the town is not close to other tourist destinations, such as Palermo, Agrigento, Syracuse or Taormina.  That means a visit to Marsala entails a long drive, fortunately over well-constructed and well-marked highways.  The town itself isn’t much to see and the wineries for the most part look like factories from the outside.  Ah, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

At Donnafugata, there is no bar as such for you to just step up to and taste.  You take a brief tour through what is, indeed, a factory – as all wineries are to a great extent.  You learn about the Rallo family that owns and runs Donnafugata and get a pretty good overview of Sicilian grapes and winemaking techniques.  We found the selection of wines to be very interesting, with Nero d’Avola as the primary red grape but with several quality wines that add Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Whites are from a broad selection of grapes, mostly unknown outside of Sicily, such as Catarratto, Grillo, Zibbibo and Ansonica.  They do have several Chardonnays just like back home.

Your tour guide offers you a tasting in a small room, little more than an office.  Our guide was a fellow named Marco, who was very enthusiastic and eager to please.  He would have opened every wine they make if we had allowed him to do so.

20150917_120436 (2)Marco getting ready to serve

One of our great discoveries was the dessert wine called Passito.  It is made from Zibbibo grapes on the island of Pantelleria, closer to Tunisia than to Italy.  It is made by placing a large portion of the harvest on cloths in the fields, in order to turn the grapes into raisins.  The remaining grapes are vinified and then passed over (hence, Passito) the raisins and allowed to macerate.  The result can be exceptionally sweet but if managed well, made into a complex, aromatic dessert wine that is, as the Italians say, uno vino de meditazione, a meditation wine.  Donnafugata’s Passito is called Ben Ryé, or “son of the wind” in Arabic.

If you intend to visit Donnafugata, be certain to make a reservation and give yourself plenty of time to get there.  Like all of Italy, they close for a leisurely lunch, which means that if you are driving from afar, you don’t have a lot of time to visit multiple wineries in the area and still get back to your hotel before dark.  (The highways are fine but the streets in the towns and cities are a bit of a challenge.)

Tasting at 35,000 Feet

Airplanes are made for flying, not for tasting wine.  Nonetheless, they serve wine on (some) airlines, so why not taste it?  Well, for one thing, most of it is pretty awful.  In economy, they have those little 187 ml. bottles that have labels like Chateau de Somewhere or Turkey Neck Cellars.  Yes, it’s liquid, contains alcohol and is either red or white.  I think it’s fair to say they make it from grapes.  Beyond that, you’re taking your chances.

But if you’re fortunate enough to be flying in Business Class or (gasp!) First Class, they often have some pretty good wine available.  We’ve done a lot of international business travel which has given us quite a few such opportunities.  We’ve had Dom Perignon, Penfold’s St. Henri, and Chateau Beychevelle, among some of the more notable wines, while aloft.  If you’re flying overseas, why not avail yourself of a tasting based on the wine list the airline offers?  Tell the flight attendant that that’s what you’re trying to do and he or she will often be happy to give you two glasses so that you can compare, say, a California Cabernet versus a French Bordeaux.  Or ask for a white before your meal (pretty much only on overseas flights only) and then red wine with it.

If you would like to experiment in this way while flying, there are a few things you ought to think about.

Airplane cabins are not ideal locations for wine tasting.  The air is pressurized and recirculating.  The light is not in a good place to appreciate the color.  And your senses are not the same as they are on the ground.  As a general rule, powerful wines come across better in the air than lighter ones because they overcome the natural dulling of your smell and taste that are the result of airplane conditions.  As a result, what you might fall in love with in the air may taste overpowering when you order later, in a restaurant or shop.  Steve once discovered a Cambria Syrah only to find he really didn’t like it when he tasted it in California’s Central Coast.

Don’t forget that wine is alcohol.  And you’re going to feel it sooner and harder.  So the general rule that you should sip not drink if you’re wine tasting goes double up in the air.  But it’s soooo easy to forget.  The movie is playing and the attendant keeps filling your glass, so why not have a little more, and a little more and…

Once, Steve was flying home from Japan and asked the steward for one of those forms that you can use for comments.  JAL had had to do a lot of maneuvering to get him on the plane and upgraded and he wanted to thank them.  The steward must have broken protocol and read the comments, because he reappeared with a broad smile and a bottle of champagne.  For the rest of the flight, he wouldn’t let Steve’s glass become empty, to the point that Steve had to fake sleeping in order to get him to stop.  Or maybe he wasn’t faking?

Airplanes bounce.  If your flight is long enough, you’re bound to hit some turbulence somewhere.  And, lo and behold, wine will slosh.  You could have a long way to go with red wine all over your pants.  That’s why airlines don’t use stemware, so that their glasses, especially when filled, will have a lower center of gravity.  So try not to have your glass filled to the top.  Of course, you could drink quickly so there isn’t much in the glass.  Bad idea.  Or you can ask the attendant not to pour too much, which also has its drawbacks.  The flight attendants like to show the airlines’ generosity to their higher-paying customers and so give you a lot and come back to give you more.  However, they never seem to be there just when you’d like another drop or two.  For some of the more expensive wines, they may not have a lot of bottles on board, so if you don’t take these fine wines when offered, they may not be there when you want them.  Still, restraint is always a good approach.

All the above sounds like we’re discouraging you from sipping wine in the air.  Not so.  We just hope that you do what you would do if you were on a tasting visit to Wine Country.  Think about what you’re doing.  Use discretion.  And then open your taste buds and your mind and taste what may prove to be something wonderful.  Have a good time.  And bon voyage.