Grgich Hills Estate

There really isn’t anyplace left in Napa Valley where you can visit a winery the way it was in the beginning of the region’s rise to worldwide prominence.  There are more than a few wineries you can visit that were originated by the old-timers: Joseph Phelps, Caymus, Robert Mondavi, Heitz Cellars, Beaulieu Vineyards and Chateau Montelena come quickly to mind.  But these are all rather palatial and bear little resemblance to what were once essentially factory buildings surrounded by farms.  If there is one place that has preserved at least a bit of the atmosphere of the 1970’s, it’s Grgich Hills Estate.

Its story is almost as important as its physical presence.  Miljenko Grgich, universally known as Mike, was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena who made the winning white wine at the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976.  He needed capital to open his own winery and so teamed with coffee magnate Thomas Hills to found Grgich Hills.  Quite elderly now, he can still be seen on occasion at the winery, keeping an eye on his heritage.

The winery itself is a simple, vine-covered industrial building.  It sits right along Route 29 in Rutherford and at some times the Wine Train runs right in front of it.  What the Grgich Hills lacks in architectural splendor it makes up in authenticity and a welcoming atmosphere.  The building is surrounded by vineyards and gardens.  The tasting room is a wood-paneled bar, much like the sort you might build yourself if you were setting up a party room in your basement.  The servers are usually friendly and efficient and try to make your visit enjoyable and memorable.

grgich1The Grgich Hills winery    grgich2           The tasting room

 

Like many Napa Valley wineries, Grgich Hills produces wines from a wide number of varietals.  It is best known for its Chardonnay which is what has come to typify Napa Chardonnays: buttery, oaky, deeply flavored, full of fruit.  Depending on your tastes it is either the apogee of what California has to offer or an avatar of the excess that California has allowed itself.  In trying the Grgich Hills chard, you can calibrate your mouth on the scale of California white wines.

Grgich Hills also has well-regarded Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, again highly fruit forward and intense.  Over the years, we have bought their Merlot more often than any other of their wines.  They also offer a few oddities, especially the Croatian wines from Mike’s own vineyards in his native land.  You can taste grapes utterly unknown in America, like the white Pošip and the red Plavac Mali.  They’re something like…well, nothing that we’ve ever tasted before.  If you have a chance, you should taste Grgich Hills’ renowned dessert wine, Violeta, named for his daughter who now runs the estate.

Stepping up to the bar is rewarding, but if you’d like to go deeper, the winery offers a number of tours and seated tastings.  The latter may be a good choice on weekends, when every winery on Route 29 is jam-packed.  Grgich Hills also has one attraction that we consider to be just plain silly.   For $30 ($15 for kids) you can take off your shoes and stomp grapes.  You’ll get a tasting, a stomping, a t-shirt and sticky feet.  It’s not our thing, but it’s quite popular.

A great thing about Grgich Hills is its combined sense of history and modernity.  It’s one of the places where it all started, under the guidance of a winemaker who helped define Napa Valley.  But it is still contemporary, with wines that have evolved…a bit.  It’s one of the last independently owned, quality wineries in the valley, which by itself makes Grgich Hills worth a visit.

Montalcino

Everybody knows the wine from Montalcino.  It’s Brunello, pure Sangiovese, always grown in the authorized confines of this small village in Tuscany.  Its earliest appearance was at the Tenuta Greppo, home of the Biondi Santi family.  The house still stands in the outskirts of Montalcino and so do their wines.

You approach the village up a winding road, just off a two-lane “highway” and somewhat further from a real autostrada.  As you approach Montalcino, you’ll see plenty of inviting villas where you can stop for a degustazione of that winery’s production.  No one would blame you if you only travelled to Montalcino for wine tasting, but you’d be missing out on a very charming corner of Italy if you didn’t carry on into the town.

We have to admit that parking is a bit of a problem.  If it’s a cold, rainy day in December you might find a place to park right by the town walls, but on a beautiful day at harvest time, you must park quite far down the hill and walk.  It’s a pleasant stroll, albeit with a lot of climbing up and down the narrow streets of the village.

Among the major attractions of Montalcino, much as you might imagine, are the wine shops and restaurants.   We had been advised to dine at Il Grapplo Blu and warned that it would be very difficult to find.  Naturally enough, it was the first taverna we came upon and so were way too early for lunch.  Il Grapplo Blu has no view over the valley, so we went looking for another place that did.  Even in mid-September, the indoor temperatures were so hot that we passed these up and went back to where we had been recommended and had a memorable meal.

On another occasion, we chose to sit outside in one of the two main piazzas, this one right in front of the village’s major church.  It was called Bacchus, understandably.  A selection of local dried hams and sausages there is well worth a try.  Of course, in both restaurants, we had to order a bottle of Brunello.  This can be a mighty expensive wine, but most wine lists have relatively affordable bottles to choose from.  Now, knowing the names of all those Brunellos is quite another matter, but we were quite satisfied with our choices.

Montalcino1

All around Montalcino you’ll find wine stores offering tastings, usually for a fee and always from the producers that shop represents.  We chose to save our tasting time for the wineries themselves but others we know have whiled away their afternoons on the piazza in front of the stores.

Like all destinations favored by tourists, Montalcino has its souvenir stores and gimcracks aplenty.  But it also has many little boutiques with fashionable clothes and more exquisite (and expensive) handicrafts.  They provide something to do other than eat, drink and mellow out under an umbrella in a piazza.

montalcino2

Perhaps Montalcino’s greatest treat (other than the Brunello) is the views you can have from around the exterior of the town.  You’ll find your heart in your throat and your camera in your hand, for sure.

Chalk Hill Road

The reason to go wine tasting is to taste wine.  Well, yeah, but it’s not the only reason.  For one thing, there’s the scenery.  We have found that virtually any place where grapes are grown for wine is beautiful, with rows of vines arrayed across a field or a hillside.  For us city-dwellers, the only way we’re going to see these sights is to drive there.  And not all roads are created equal.

Some are just ways to get from one grape-growing region to another.  Highway 101, which runs through Sonoma County, is one of these.  So is the Long island Expressway, which takes you to the North Fork vineyards.  Others are the main roads that have numerous wineries on either side.  The sight of one famous establishment after the other can be quite thrilling, like a wine shop with buildings instead of shelves.  Napa Valley’s Route 29 is such a road as is the Route du Vin in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or.  If you are a fan of going wine tasting, as we are, you will definitely take these roads one day.

And then there are the roads that are, in themselves, destinations.  They’re just gorgeous, aesthetic experiences when you’re there.  It’s good to know that there are wineries and vineyards nearby but these roads are worth driving on just for the experience of seeing them.   One that we particularly like is Chalk Hill Road in Sonoma.  Assuming you are coming from the aforementioned Route 101, take the Old Redwood Highway exit on the east side and go a short distance to Pleasant Avenue.  Shortly thereafter, turn left on Chalk Hill Road.

The road goes from Route 101 to Route 128, which will take you either to Knights Valley to the south or Alexander Valley to the north.  There are wineries along the way to visit, but not many.  They include some of Sonoma’s finest, including the eponymous Chalk Hill, Verité, and Lancaster.  The drive will take you through forests, fields and hills, with virtually no houses or even wineries that you can see from the road.  There are horses in some of those fields who like to take a run every now and again.  It being California, the hills are usually a light tan, with clumps of trees and greenery to color the view.

 chalkhill1  chalkhill2

Pictures don’t do Chalk Hill Road any justice.  You need to see the dappling of shadow and sunlight as you drive along, feel the peacefulness of a country road with hardly any other drivers on it, hear the sound of nothing more than your car…which almost but not quite spoils it.

We recommend that you make your way there on a visit to Sonoma.  You won’t be disappointed by the wines you try (although you may be horrified by the tasting fees) and you will feel that you’ve gotten more than wine from Wine Country.

Wine, with Interest

Wine tasting is an interactive endeavor.  Unless you’re opening a lot of bottles at home, by yourself, the very least you need is someone to pour the wine for you.  (And sitting home alone opening bottles isn’t healthy for mind or body.)  For most of us, it’s a social activity.  We go wine tasting together and it’s rare that we have a tasting room to ourselves.

A significant amount of time is spent talking about what we’re tasting:  “What did you think of the nose/mouthfeel/acidity/finish?  Wasn’t that yummy?  I don’t like this one.  You like big, heavy wines more than I do”.  The conversation is always amongst ourselves and often with strangers who happen to be at the bar or the table at the same time as we are.

The common element is always the server, who generally selects the order in which you taste wines and the amount that you receive.  They are trained to act like hosts at a party, to be convivial, provide information and while not actively hawking the winery’s wares, to encourage you to buy some or join the wine club.  It therefore follows that to maximize the pleasure of your visit, you should interact in a friendly manner with your server.

Now, much of that is just the manners your mother taught you.  If somebody gives you something, you smile and say thank you.  But the objective here is something more.  If you engage your server in conversation and ask fairly meaningful questions, you will get a lot more in return.  What are some reasonable questions?  You can ask how the wine you just sipped differs from previous vintages.  If the wine is estate-grown, where are the winery’s vineyards?  And if they are sourced, who do they buy grapes from?  Does their winemaker control the farming practices or is it strictly up to the vineyard owner?  You could ask the server’s opinion on how long to cellar a wine that seems to need it.  We almost always ask what the blend of grapes and the level of alcohol are.  If we think we might be interested in buying some of a wine, we ask to see the bottle; there’s often a lot of information to be gleaned from the labels.

There are two types of servers: plain pourers and wine educators.  You’re not going to get much from the former.  We’ve found that better wineries make a point of training their people so that you don’t get someone who is simply capable of filling a glass and no more.  Ah, but when you meet an educator, showing interest brings rewards.  If you wanted a comparison with previous vintages, he or she might have some and will open them so that you can compare.  We have had some rather in-depth verticals (multiple years of the same wine) on occasion.  And if you ask about cellaring, the educator might just remember that there’s a bottle of a ten-year old (or older) that they served to visiting dignitaries just this morning. “Would you like some?”  Oh, yes, indeed.

Even if you don’t get little extras, you will almost always benefit from the information you receive.  Since one of the objectives of wine tasting is to increase your knowledge of wine in general and specific producers in particular, you get the pleasure of just adding to your understanding of fine wine.

When a tasting room is really crowded, on a weekend or when a tour bus arrives, you may not be able to show your interest to your server.  He or she is overworked and underappreciated on those days.  But when you hit the right person on the right day, the effect is wonderful.  It is another reason to have a quiet, seated tasting on the busiest days.  The staff know you’re serious and treat you accordingly.

Share, Sip and Pour

We often receive the question from our friends, “How many wineries can a person safely visit in a day?”  And the answer always is, “It depends”.   It depends on your level of interest, how you like to taste wine and most important, what your tolerance for alcohol may be.  Everyone is different in these regards so self-knowledge both in the planning before you go and during the day that you’re there is critical to both enjoyment and safety.

Here at Power Tasting, we’re all about wine tasting.  It’s not about the quality or even really about the quantity of the wine – or the cake – it’s about your overall level of appreciation.

Of course, wine is an intoxicating beverage. If you have too much of it, you can’t appreciate what you’re tasting.  And if you’re driving, you can be downright dangerous to yourself and others on the road.

So to answer the opening question, we often visit six wineries in a day.  “Six!!!!” you may be saying.  But we have our method and maybe it can help you.

  • We share a tasting. We get one glass for the two of us, just as you might get two forks for one slice of cake.  That way, we get to taste as several wines at any winery without imbibing as much alcohol.  Our objective is to taste, not to drink.  (Now, there are exceptions.  If we are visiting a place that makes wines we know in advance we will particularly like, we sometimes each have our own glasses.  Those are the days we spend more time in those particular wineries and visit fewer of them overall.)  In addition, it’s less expensive if you share.
  • We get a lot of appreciation out of aromas, as well as tastes. For one thing, smelling wine is an equal part of the experience.  Our noses often tell us a different story than our mouths do.  The aromas may be intoxicating, but you can’t get drunk just smelling wine.
  • We sip just as one might have a nibble of cake. It only takes a little bit to get the flavors, the mouthfeel, the finesse and the finish of a wine.  There are some who spit before swallowing, but we are not among them.  Yes, we take in a bit of alcohol, but we get the complete sensation of a wine.  And then…
  • We pour. That’s what the bucket on the bar is there for.  Let’s face it, not every wine is great or at least not to everyone’s taste.  So if we sip something that either or both of us don’t like it, we get rid of it.  Honest, the servers don’t care.  They fill glasses; how the visitor empties them is not the server’s concern.
  • We always monitor how much we’re drinking and how we feel. If there’s any question at all, it’s time to stop.  By the time you know you’ve had too much, you’ve had way too much.

Because we are careful, we know that our usual consumption is on average about a half a glass per winery.  So if we visit six wineries, it comes to three glasses over a six to seven hour period.  For some people, that may indeed be too much, so don’t do it if you’re one of those people.