Don’t Try to Visit Everyplace All at Once

There are two types of locales in Wine Country.  Some are places with a small number of wineries, often not of the very highest grade.  Areas like Temecula Valley, Long Island’s North Fork and Jerome, Arizona fall into this category.  Then there are the sectors where the world’s great wines are made, such as Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Stellenbosch, Barossa, Tuscany and the Cote d’Or in Burgundy.  These are enormous territories with hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms.  (For example, there are more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley alone.)

Here’s a little non-secret: you can’t visit them all.  Probably not in a lifetime and absolutely not in a day.  So if you’re visiting one of these legendary wine-making areas and you only have a day (especially if you only have a day) there are some tips that will make your visit more enjoyable.

  • Do some advance planning. Figure out where you will be starting from that day, how long it will take to get to Wine Country and when you need to be back.  Many thanks to Google Maps; everyone can be an expert in these matters nowadays.  You also must factor in the number of wineries you intend to visit, which is governed more by your tolerance for alcohol than in the number of hours you’ll be in the area.
  • Choose just one section to visit. Or maybe two, at the most depending on the geography.  The point is that you want to spend your time visiting wineries, not driving long distances from place to place.  [Exception to this advice: Maybe you do want to drive around in order to take in the scenery.  Maybe you want to see the vineyards surrounding castles in the Medoc or the gracious hills in Sonoma County or the Route Touristique in Champagne.  That’s a great idea, too, but then plan to minimize your winery visits.]
  • Figure out where you’re going to have lunch. If you are going wine tasting, you are going to have lunch.  This may be a picnic by the side of the road in a Burgundian village or a fine repast at a South African wine farm.  But these meals don’t just happen.  You need to plan ahead if you’re bringing lunch with you or know where restaurants are if you intend to dine that way.  Some of the best bets are knowing where the local delis are.  These days, many have gone gourmet, which isn’t bad at all.
  • Go to the best wineries in the section you choose. This is easy if you’re familiar with the area, but what do you do if the wineries are all just names to you?  There are several answers.  Again the Web is your friend; look up “best wineries in ______” and you’ll have an excellent chance of tasting something worthwhile, at least to someone’s taste.  Or just ask people.  We have often pulled into the first winery we see, tasted their wines and then asked the people there where else we should go.  These folks in wineries are usually very generous with advice and have often led us to some of the greatest wine tasting experiences of our lives.  (See Valpolicella Follies, for example.)
  • Do your wine tasting in a town, not at the vineyards. As a general rule, tasting rooms in towns are inferior to what you’ll be able to try at the places where the wine is actually made.  But that is not universally true.  For example, you can have a very pleasant experience walking down Grand Avenue in Los Olivos, stopping at a few (just a few) of the 25 tasting rooms in town.  You can do the same thing at the degustaziones in Montalcino.  If you happen to be staying in those places, you don’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel of a car, so your day is optimized.
  • Don’t worry about what you didn’t get a chance to see. It is far better, to our minds, to get the most out of a small sample then just to skim a larger selection.  We realize that not everyone feels this way, but consider the fact that having visited one corner of Wine Country, life has a way of giving you another chance one day.

Meeting the Winemaker

As we state on our front page, Power Tasting is not about wine as such, but about visiting Wine Country.  We offer advice to travelers, not connoisseurs.  The people we generally talk with when we go visiting are servers and tasting room managers, not winemakers.  Still, over the years we have had the occasion to meet many winemakers who just happened to be in the tasting room while we were there.

Perhaps our warmest memory was meeting two generations of the Charavin family at their winery in Rasteau, Domaine des Coteaux de Travers (  We were already familiar with their wines and made a point of visiting them.  The winery had only a simple bar in front of the production area.  The young woman who served us was the both the wife of the present winemaker and the daughter of the family that had owned the estate in previous years.  While we were talking with her, her father-in-law, Robert Charavin stopped by and we learned a bit more about the history of the winery.  And then his son, also named Robert, came by in his mud-covered boots.  They were all excited to meet Americans who loved their wines, but not as excited as were to meet them.  It was a unique and educational experience.

Also in the Rhone Valley, we visited Chateauneuf du Pape, an area famed for its hearty and expressive red wines.  Traveling through the sector, we stopped at a winery we had been told was up-and-coming, Domaine Paul Autard (, in French).  The woman serving us recognized that our accents were from North America and when we asked a few questions decided to introduce us to the winemaker, that is, her husband Jean-Paul Autard.  He explained that his father, Paul, had started the winery and that he was setting about to create world-quality wines.  We discussed his trips to New York, invited him to call us when he was there the next time (he never did) and he gave us a nice corkscrew that we use to this day.


Jean-Paul Autard (Photo courtesy of Domaine Paul Autard)

One more story.  We have been drinking the wines of David Cofaro for quite some time and visit his winery often.  We’ve gotten to know him and his wife Pat a bit over the years.  In 2015, we got to meet his new assistant winemaker, Josh.  He’s an earnest and thoughtful young man who has some great ideas about how he could improve wines we already thought were pretty terrific.

In all three of these stories, there’s a common element.  There’s more to wine than barrels and terroir.  There are the people and the way they think about wine, their personal histories, their way of approaching what they do for a living with passion and intelligence.  We are not oenologists or critics, so our interactions with winemakers is necessarily irregular.  But when we do get the chance, it adds enormously to our understanding or wine and to the pleasure we get going wine tasting.

Jocko’s Steak House

Power Tasting doesn’t do restaurant reviews so this is not a restaurant review.  It is about a restaurant that is definitely a place worth a visit if you ever happen to be in Nipomo, California.  Actually, no one ever just happens to be in Nipomo, so we’re really saying that if you ever are wine tasting in San Luis Obispo County or nearby Santa Maria, make a pilgrimage to Jocko’s.

A visit there is not just about the steak although the steaks are very good.  It’s about the experience.  For one thing, you feel as though you have been transported to a Saturday afternoon western of your youth.  (You do remember Saturday afternoon movies, don’t you?)  The bar is wood-paneled, with the heads of various dead animals (deer and such, not cows) shown proudly.  Sorry, the door is just a door, not of the swinging variety.  Surprisingly for a restaurant smack in the middle of Wine Country, the list is not particularly impressive although you’ll surely find something to enjoy with your steak.

Then there are the folks who assemble there.  Ten gallon hats and boots are much in evidence.  Everybody is a regular or, more likely, they treat everyone as though they were regulars, which is even better.  You’d better have a reservation as Jocko’s is quite well-known locally and seems always to be crowded.  Not that you’ll actually get a table at the time you reserved, but it will put you in the running to get a table and give you time to enjoy the bar.  Then, when it is your turn, you’ll hear your name bellowed out to overcome the din.

The dining room is a large, open space with cinderblock walls and Formica covered tables.  This is not a restaurant for gracious, elegant dining.  It’s for seriously committed carnivores.  Oh, they give you salad and vegetables, too, but the raison d’etre of Jocko’s (not that they’d ever use a phrase like raison d’etre) is enormous slabs of meat, mostly of the bovine variety.  There are some fish items as well, but really, why bother?


The firepit at Jocko’s.  Photo courtesy of A. Rios on Flickr.

So now you’ve ordered your dinner.  You can go out back and watch them cook it in a great, wide open, wood fired barbecue pit.  There are dozens of steaks and ribs and chops being cooked at any one time and at least one of them is yours.  The fellow tending the grill must be able to stand the heat, because he’s staying in the kitchen.

Go to Jocko’s for the experience.  Don’t worry, if you’re a meat-eater, you’ll love your meal.

Beringer Vineyards

There’s a lot of history in Napa Valley.  And then there’s history.  If you’d like to get a glimpse and a taste of Napa Valley’s past and it’s transcendent present, there are few places more suited for that than the Beringer winery in St. Helena (  Some may think that successful California winemaking started with the so-called Judgement of Paris in 1976.  And indeed the Beringer brothers were making wine in ’76…1876 that is.

The overall effect of the first view of the Beringer property is that is not so much a winery as a park.  The grounds are adorned with fountains and ancient trees that keep everything cool even on the hottest summer days.  There are two venues for tasting, the Old Winery and the Rhine House, the latter the 19th century home of founder Frederick Beringer.  (His brother’s Hudson House is also on the property.)  So even if you have people in your party who are not wine drinkers, there’s a lot to see and do.
Still, Power Tasting is about wine tasting, so let’s talk about that.  Now owned by Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates, Beringer makes wines that range in quality from everyday table wines to some of the finest wines in California, if not the entire world.  We recommend that serious wine enthusiasts choose the reserve tasting at the Rhine House, which gives you a chance to sample the famous Beringer Private Reserve.  This wine was the creation of former winemaker Ed Sbragia, who propelled Beringer to the front ranks of American winemaking.

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The Rhine House at Beringer Vineyards

Let us relate a few stories from our previous visits.

On warm afternoons, you can take your tasting to tables on the porch surrounding the Rhine House.  On our first visit, we arrived late in the afternoon with about an hour to go until closing time.  We found the wines to be spectacular and took our time, with Steve going inside to collect the next pour while Lucie stayed at the table.  After luxuriating in great wine and the shafts of golden afternoon sunshine piercing the trees, Steve went to pay…and all the staff had left for the day!  We do recommend a late-afternoon visit but also encourage you to pay for your tasting.

We have previously discussed Christmas in California’s wineries; Beringer is one of the loveliest.  For one thing, Rhine House looks as though it could be made out of gingerbread.  For another, they erect a magnificently decorated Christmas tree in the center hallway.  Their shop also has many lovely gift items.  It’s impossible not to feel the spirit of the holidays.

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IMG_2851Christmas at Beringer

We have found the servers at the Rhine House to be knowledgeable and helpful.  We have long enjoyed Beringer’s Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and one time wanted to taste it in comparison to the reserve wines.  However, the Knight’s Valley is not served in the Rhine House.  So an attendant hopped in a golf cart, drove off to the other tasting room and brought a bottle back for us.  How’s that for service?

We have always found that if you are obviously interested in fine wines, the servers at Beringer have some special treats stashed away.  So if you particularly admire, say, the 2010 Private Reserve, there might just be a 2004 under the bar for you to compare it with and get an idea of how it will age.

Beringer is one of our favorite destinations in Napa Valley.  We recommend that you visit it too.  We think it will become one of your favorites, too.