Signorello Estate

A visit to the Signorello Estate (http://signorelloestate.com/) winery can take on a few different personalities. Let’s focus on the easy one first, tasting their wines.  We rather like them, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Syrah.  According to Signorello’s web site, their wines have been receiving considerable attention from the point-giving magazines. They are certainly a mouthful, with strong varietal flavors. Their top wines are now allocated, so if you’re not a member of Signorello’s wine club, the only way you’ll taste their top-rated wines is to visit the winery.

The tasting room is spacious and kept a little on the dark side, for a chateau-like atmosphere.  In fact, as you drive up to the winery you may be reminded a bit of a slightly modern French chateau.  And indeed although the owners bear an Italian surname, the wines are very much in a Napafied French style.  There is a grandeur to the Signorello winery, combining the architecture and the landscape.  You know you’re in Napa Valley.  In fact, you’ll have just the sort of experience that many wine tasters came to Napa Valley for.

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If you’re lucky, your server will be Nathalie Birebent, whose lilting French accent makes the wines taste a little less Californian and a little more French.  (More about Mme. Birebent later.)

You may enjoy your tasting at the bar of the tasting room or outside on a sunlit terrace, and it is there on the terrace that the split personality of a Signorello visit kicks in.  There is one of those infinity pools that seems to disappear over the edge, leading to a lovely view of Signorello’s vineyards and Napa Valley generally.  It is hard to think of anything more attractive on a lazy summer afternoon.

But summer afternoons at Signorello are anything but lazy.  Signorello has a working restaurant kitchen just opposite the bar and they do use it.  The winery offers several different wine and food pairing tours and on the weekends there is often quite a party going on.  So the calm of the interior belies the jangle of the terrace.  If the latter is the scene you like, there are fewer places better than Signorello to enjoy it.  If not, we recommend you visit Signorello on a weekday.

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We have a special affinity for Signorello, beginning with the aforementioned Nathalie Birebent.  Not only is she the spirit of the tasting room, but she’s also the wife of Pierre Birebent, the winemaker.  So Mme. Birebent brings a special level of knowledge to her service which magnifies the wine tasting experience.  Lucie is a native francophone (and Steve can get along in French) so our conversations over a few pours is always quite lively when we visit Signorello.  On one occasion, Pierre gave us a private tour which was a pretty amazing way to visit a winery.

Overall, a visit to Signorello combines many of the elements that make wine tasting exciting: fine wine, knowledgeable servers, resonant architecture and (if you like) a party.  There’s the little thrill that comes from discovering wines that you can’t find on the shelves of your local wine shop.  We always leave Signorello with a smile on our faces.

A Field Guide to Servers – Part 1 – The Pourers

If we think of our passages through Wine Country as nature expeditions, then it’s important to recognize the flora and fauna we find there.  The flora, of course, are grapes.  It’s the various forms of wildlife we might see that get our attention here. We refer specifically to Servers.  The four species of Servers are the Pourers, the Hosts, the Sellers and the Educators.  Each has distinctive features and habitats and so Power Tasting is pleased to offer this field guide for those of you who will be encountering Servers in their native sites.  In this issue, we introduce you to the Pourers and will continue with the other species in future issues.

What is a Pourer?  A Pourer is a person whose sole activity is to remove wine from a bottle through the neck and place it in a glass.  A Pourer knows nothing about wine, even the one he or she is serving.  In most cases, the Pourer is an employee of the establishment where he or she is found but may in some cases be a son, daughter or close relative who has been dragooned into pouring duties instead of hanging out at a mall.  Portions served by a Pourer are generally small, probably because he or she has been instructed to do so by the proprietor of the said establishment.  The proprietors are cheap in serving wine because they are cheap in everything or they never would have hired a Pourer.

How can you recognize a Pourer?  Pourers are generally encountered alone, often in periods of the day in which wineries attract few visitors.  In fact, Pourers are often sited in tasting rooms that have relatively few visitors at all.  Pourers can be recognized by the following characteristics:

  • Poor posture
  • Dull, lifeless expressions
  • A general unwillingness to communicate
  • The presence of a cell phone in the hand not serving
  • You immediately feel like you are disturbing him or her

Pourers don’t want to be wherever they are and don’t want to talk with anyone, especially you.

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What can you expect from a Pourer?  Not much.  But you will get wine in your glass, so make the most of it.  Take your time.  Swirl your wine gently in your glass.  Savor each sip.  These actions are likely to make a Pourer rather nervous and may lead to a bit more attention to you than you might otherwise expect.  (Sadly, the type of wineries that employ Pourers often have lousy wine, so taking your time may be a test of your endurance versus his or hers.)

How to get the greatest advantage from a Pourer?  Since questions won’t result in meaningful (or even intelligible) answers, don’t waste your time.  If you do want some more information and there is no one else around, ask if there is any literature available, such as descriptions of the wines on offer or tasting notes.  If you really do care, ask for the web site address.

Where are Pourers found?  While you might encounter a Pourer anywhere, it has been our experience that they tend to appear more frequently in the in-town tasting rooms of wineries you’ve never heard of but which have nice signs out front.   They pop up on weekends although the general busy-ness of those days call for a Pourer to be accompanied by someone who knows what he or she is doing.  You’re more likely to see a Pourer in the wild on a rainy weekday morning.

Here’s to the Wines of Yesteryear

In our youth, most people we knew who did drink didn’t drink wine.  Oh, there would be an occasional bottle on a special occasion, but the alcoholic beverages of choice in those days were whisky and beer.  Many of us were the first in our families who took wine seriously, both as an accompaniment to a meal and as a drink that would give unique pleasure on its own.

So what were we drinking back then?  By our current standards, it wasn’t very good.  For one thing, we were students and we didn’t have much money.  Even if a Mouton Rothschild could be had for around ten dollars, that was a lot for a starving scholar then.  Also, there weren’t as many wine stores such as we see today; there were liquor stores with a few bottles of red and a few bottles of white somewhere in the back.  (It was a little better if you lived in an area with Italian, French or Spanish immigrants, but not a lot better.)

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Photo courtesy of J. Crew

If you were anything like us, the first wine you actually went into a store and bought for yourself was one of these: Lancers, Mateus, Mouton-Cadet or Gallo Hearty Burgundy.  All these wines are still available for purchase.  (One of the reasons for buying Lancers was that it came in a nice clay bottle that you could use as a vase, so it maybe doesn’t count as a wine, but let’s include it.)

Lancers was and is a light bodied rosé from Portugal.  Amazingly, it is produced by the great port house, Fonseca.  It was created for American tastes and it succeeded quite well in that regard.  Described as “moderately sweet” on the Fonseca web site, it tastes pretty sweet to us.

Its competitor for American attention was Mateus, which some of us pronounced mat-OOS and those affecting a European elegance said ma-TAY-us.  We don’t think anyone knows to this day.  It’s also Portuguese, sweet, comes in a pretty, mandolin-shaped bottle and was impressive to bring on a date.  It showed you were too cool for Lancers, which after all had an English name.

But what could be better than a French name, and that of a French baron no less?  Mouton Cadet was originally the name that the French branch of the renowned Rothschild family gave to wines it didn’t think were worthy of being called “real” Mouton.  By the time we were buying it, Mouton Cadet had morphed into a thin, acidic, mass produced wine.  But we liked it.  Just perfect for anyone who knew nothing about wine…and that was us.  By the way, these days it’s not bad for the price.

Finally, Gallo Hearty Burgundy was, as Gallo calls it today, their “original red blend” which of course had nothing to do with Pinot Noir from the east of France.  But it tasted pretty good and showed your fraternity brothers that you were above (sneer) mere beer.  You probably can’t do much better even today for six bucks.

Other than a nice walk down memory lane, what’s the relevance to today’s wine tasters of even moderately good taste?  These wines are where we got our start.  Even if they weren’t very serious wines, we took them seriously.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we liked them back then although we couldn’t have said why.  They brought a little glamor and sophistication into our lives and opened some horizons as to how people lived across the ocean or the continent.

In short, these wines of yesteryear were the first steps that led us to wineries in Napa Valley, Tuscany, Bordeaux and numerous other outposts in Wine Country.  Sure, we can look down our oh, so elegant noses at those bottles we wouldn’t think of buying today.  But consider: there’s probably some wine you like today that won’t be as appealing to you in a few years.  Our tastes grow and change, and they had to start somewhere.

Lost Wineries

This is an unusual “Places to Visit” article, because you can’t visit the places described here.  They’re gone, vanished into corporate policy, Napafication, wine economics or just the passage of time.  We’re talking about wineries that we have loved in the past that are no longer there.  These musings were occasioned by a recent visit to Joseph Phelps’ Freestone winery in Sonoma county.  Phelps is one of the best known Napa Valley wineries and they added a tasting room way out towards the Sonoma Coast when they bought vineyards in the area in the late 1990’s.  It has been open since 2007 and as of December 31, 2016 it will be closed.

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Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Visitors Center

The tasting room had a gracious farmhouse feel to it and we hope that someone else decides to share their wines there.  Even if someone does, it won’t be the same without those wonderful Phelps wines, which will still be available at their St. Helena winery.  How sad that future wine lovers won’t be able to enjoy it the way that we did. (Actually, we’d love to buy it as a home but Phelps isn’t offering and we doubt that we could afford it.)

Not so many years ago, Michael Mondavi Family, owned by the son of the great Robert, had a winery in Carneros.  It was similar to the Phelps Freestone winery in that it also gave visitors a sense that they were stopping by an old friend’s home.  Sure, there was a bar and a server, but with a fireplace and some easy chairs, you felt that Mike would be dropping by any minute to offer you a glass and a welcome.  Okay, this was all in the imagination but for one thing, wine tasting calls for some imagination and for another, that feeling is part of the experience.

[Today the Michael Mondavi tasting room has been replaced by that of a businessman who has turned the winery into a monument to ego and garish taste.  No more need be said about the sense of loss.]

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The former Michael Phelps Family tasting room

Perhaps the saddest loss was the Stag’s Leap tasting room built by the master winemaker, Warren Winiarski.  Oh, you can still visit Stag’s Leap Vineyards and taste their famous wines.  But Mr. Winiarski hasn’t had anything to do with them for some years now, since he sold his vineyards and winery to a conglomerate.  Today, there’s a stunning stone and glass Visitors Center there now, a truly modern Napa building.  But there used to be a wooden building, a bit too crowded to be sure, with an inviting terrace and shady trees that told you that wine making is about farming and artistry, not just business.

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The former terrace of the Stag’s Leap winery

There was that same sense in a lot of the wineries that have upgraded to meet the demands of tourism and trade.  Perhaps it’s just wistfulness, but there was an immediacy to the experience when you stepped up to a plank stretched between two barrels and got a glass of wine from the fellow whose name was on the bottle.  You can still experience that in Paso Robles and other out-of-the-way corners of Wine Country.  But for Americans, it all started in Napa Valley and it is missed there.

There is more than simple nostalgia to these memories.  Wine has a history; that’s why they give it vintage years.  And wine tasting, as a voyage and as an experience, has a history as well.  Our children won’t encounter a visit to Wine Country the way we did.  It will be great fun for them too, but it won’t be the same fun.  We have no yen to bring back the good ol’ days.  They weren’t always that good; some poor wineries have been replaced by great wineries
in places that were only orchards back then.  But it is important to keep the memory alive, if only to measure progress.  As the economics of wine making and selling have changed the product, so it has changed the sensation one gets when going wine tasting.  As wineries like Phelps Freestone and Michael Mondavi Family disappear, a bit of our lifetimes disappear with them.