A Field Guide to Servers – Part 3 – The Sellers

Here is the next installment of Power Tasting’s guide to the Servers one might deal with in Wine Country.  There are many species of Servers; we have previously introduced Pourers and Hosts.  Here we present the Sellers.

What is a Seller?  A Seller pours and serves wine, but these are almost secondary characteristics.  Like a Host, a Seller is a pretty good talker, but unlike a Host, the Seller’s intention is not that you have a great time but rather that you join the winery’s club or at least buy some wine while you are there.  If you show the slightest interest – and we recommend that you do show interest – you will be regaled with details about the wine club, how easy it is to join, how much great wine you will receive and what wonderful events you will be invited to.  It is best not to mention that you live far away and will probably not be able to attend the events.  By showing some interest, you are more likely to taste wine from of a few bottles reserved under the counter for likely joiners.


How can you recognize a Seller?  Sellers talk.  And Talk.  And talk. Some of the palaver is actually rather useful.  Sellers generally know a lot about the wine they are serving (if not wine in general) and are happy to describe them to you, always in glowing terms of course.  Once you respond, as polite people usually do, by saying that you too like a particular wine, the Seller will move in like a torpedo.  A commonly encountered phrase is, “Well, if you liked that…”, and then he or she reaches along the counter and brings up the next inimitable gem.  (By the way, none of this applies if you ask about a wine club first.  Providing you with information you ask for is service, not a sales pitch.)

How to get the greatest advantage from a Seller?  First of all, you need to have some sales resistance.  If you don’t, either be prepared to walk away or to buy something.  But encouraging the Seller brings rewards.  You’ll get that extra little bit in your glass.  The wonderful vintage from yesteryear might suddenly appear, left over from a media tasting and held in reserve just for you.  You really will learn a lot about that winery’s production and wine philosophy.  And, to be fair, you might actually find that the wine club or a few bottles being pushed at you do attract your taste buds and your pocketbook.

Where are Sellers found?  Sellers can be found in virtually any tasting room, but a rule of thumb is that wineries with cheaper wines don’t benefit as much from club membership or a few bottles sold and the wineries with the highest priced wines don’t benefit from the Seller’s personality.  But when you walk into a winery with a lot of bottles in the $75 to $100 range, the Seller’s distinctive spiel is likely to be heard.


Etude Wines

On a pleasant country road in Carneros, the southern end of Napa Valley, you’ll find the Etude winery.  It is at the end of a long lane, in three buildings more evocative of New England than California.  It is surrounded by vines although not for the grapes that go into the wines you will taste there.

Etude is unusual in that they make top-end Pinot Noirs, thanks to Jon Priest, their winemaker, but not only from Carneros.  They produce Pinots from the Santa Rita Hills in Southern California, Willamette Valley in Oregon and as far away as New Zealand, all under the Etude label.  They are all very good, but our favorites are their estate wines from Carneros, especially Heirloom, their premium vineyard parcel.

Etude is distinctive in another way, as well.  They also make several highly rated Cabernet Sauvignons, all from the Napa Valley.  Generally, Cabernet houses don’t do Burgundy grapes well and Pinot specialists can’t quite seem to get their Cabs right.  Etude is one of the few to do both equally well.  Oh, yes, they have Chardonnay and Pinot Gris too, for white wine drinkers.

The tasting room is spacious, woody, well-lit and has an imposing wall of wines behind the bar.  There are tables and sitting areas inside and you can also have a seated tasting outside (for a charge).  Or just take your glass, walk around the yard or sit in some strategically placed lawn chairs.  We have found the servers to be rather knowledgeable and able to explain what is in your glass in such a way that you appreciate the wine a little more.


Photograph courtesy of justluxe.com

There is generally a convivial mood to tastings at Etude, fostered by the servers to be sure but also by the atmosphere of the winery.  More so than at many of the Napa Valley wineries further north on route 29, there is more of a feeling that you are in the country, surrounded by vines, where the focus is on the quality of the wines than on the imposing architecture or Fifth Avenue merchandise for sale.

A plus (and maybe a slight negative) is that Etude is one of the first high-quality wineries one finds driving north from San Francisco.  So if you don’t have a lot of time for a Napa Valley visit, Etude and a few of its neighbors can make for a fast and easy trip.  The downside is that Etude is well-known both for its wines and as a destination, so a lot of groups arrive there.  If you can avoid weekends, particularly holiday weekends, you’ll enjoy your visit to Etude all the more.

We have been members of Etude’s wine club for many years and are happy to introduce you to it.  It’s the sort of place that, if we were going to design a winery, it would be a lot like Etude.

They Ship, You Sip

These days, it’s easy to find good, great and even exceptional wines in Wine Country.  The problem is how do you get the wine you like onto your dining room table?  If you live in the area of wineries you like, this really isn’t a problem at all.  You simply buy some wine, load it into your car and drive home.  But for those less fortunate and for those who like to include wine tasting in their travel plans, especially overseas, getting the wine home is tricky.

Wine clubs  Wine clubs are one way to solve the dilemma.  If you live in a state that allows out-of-state shipping (most of them, these days) joining a club means that wine will show up on your doorstep at regular intervals, usually four times a year.  This is, after all, the raison d’etre of these clubs in the first place.  It benefits the winery to be sure, but there’s a lot of benefit to the buyer as well, especially if you are a collector and are willing to let some of the wine age for a bit.

The problem – and this is a common theme – is the shipping cost.  Almost all clubs offer you a discount (20% is common) but the cost of getting the wine to you often cuts, if not wipes out, the discount.  Some wine clubs are becoming sensitive to this and are offering special deals and flat rate shipping, but this only benefits the individuals who buy in volume.  For example, a $15 shipping charge for three bottles adds five dollars to the price of every bottle.  That’s cost is not unusual.

Shipping services  The wine clubs are great if you want a case a year from one producer.  But if you are on a wine tasting trip, you are more likely to buy one bottle from each of twelve wineries than twelve bottle from just one.  Here’s where shipping services come into play.  Of course, there are UPS and FedEx and they are usually present in the towns of Wine Country.  But check first; not every common carrier has a license to ship alcohol and those that do don’t have it in every office.

Another alternative is specialized shippers whose primary business is to send wine home to people just like you.  They specialize in packing and shipping delicate freight, i.e., wine bottles.  A few that we have used are Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg, Buffalo’s Shipping Post in Napa and Safe Haven Wine Services in Paso Robles.  A quick Google search will help you find more shippers wherever you may be going.

A variant on these services is to let your hotel take care of it for you.  Many have arrangements with shipping services that allow you to bring your bottles to the front desk, fill out some inventory forms and they take care of the rest.  It’s very convenient and we’ve never had any troubles using the service from hotels we have stayed in.  But it is a bit nerve-wracking to leave your precious cargo in the hands of a hotel clerk.

The process of these services runs around $60 per case.  In other words, you’re back to adding five bucks to each bottle.  If you are proud of a fabulous little low-priced gem you found somewhere, an additional $5 takes away much of the bargain.

Lug it yourself  There is the option of carrying your wine home yourself.  The economics make sense.  Almost any winery will sell you a foam insulated box for under $10.  So fill it yourself and take it with you.  It may cost you another $25 to include the box with your luggage, so you might be saving $25 in total.  And, oh yes, remember to bring packing tape and scissors with you.

That may be good for your wallet but it’s bad for your back.  You have to get the wine into the back seat of your car (in summer at any rate; in winter it can go in the trunk), out of the car and into the terminal and then reverse the process on the other end when you land.  If your car is a rental, there’s one additional step.  Don’t even think about sending wine as luggage if you have a stop on your itinerary.

You are also subject to the tender mercies of two sets of baggage handlers.  For the most part, bottles we have taken home this way have arrived intact, but there have been some sad counter-examples.  When we travel to Europe, we generally limit our purchases to the legal limit (four bottles per couple), wrap the bottles in bubble wrap that we have brought from home and put them in our luggage.  We have had no horror stories thus far, but time will tell.


Joining a Wine Club

In almost all California wineries, when you go wine tasting you’ll find a brochure (or your server will give you one) inviting you to join their wine club.  At that very moment, it usually seems like a great idea.  The few sips you’ve had so far appeal to you; the room is warm; the server is friendly; and the wine is beginning to lighten your mood.  So why not?

There are some very good reasons to join a wine club and about as many that would lead you to decide not to.  Being a member certainly makes a difference to your wine tasting experience, as we have written previously.  So let’s give some thought as to how you might decide whether to join.

The first question you should ask yourself is whether you like the wine.  Even more, do you like it enough to want to receive a case every year?  If the answer is “yes”, by all means join the club.  But if not, think twice. That’s because by joining you are signing up for at least a case annually.  A slightly more nuanced question is whether you like all of a winery’s production, or just certain (usually the top tier) wines?  If you would welcome getting some but not all of their wines, you should follow up with some more questions.

  • Can you select just the wines you want?  Or as we call it, can you customize?  Many clubs will offer you just the whites or the reds or the sparklings or however they split up their production.  So if, for example, you like all their red wines but aren’t eager to get their whites, limit your deliveries accordingly.
  • But what if you only like some of their reds?  Again, some wine clubs will allow you to specify certain varietals.  For another example, we are members of a few wine clubs in the Carneros region from which we only receive Pinot Noirs .
  • But what if you only like one or two of their wines?  That’s a bit tougher and many wineries won’t let you choose only one or a few.  But some do, and then you’ll get a dozen bottle of the same wine year after year.  Do you really like it that much?

For the most part, wineries select certain wines for you for each shipment and that’s what you get.  You may not even be allowed to cancel an order you don’t want.  Some, however, will allow you to change their selections to your preferred wines.  This is another way of limiting what you get to what you like.

Another reason for you to join a wine club is to have the opportunity for free tastings whenever you visit.  So before joining a club, ask yourself whether you like the experience in a particular winery enough to come back.  Or put another way, would you like to come this way again repeatedly?  If you don’t see yourself in that part of Wine Country very often in the future, maybe it’s a good idea to pass on this club.

For some people, a consideration is how often a wine club delivers.  One of our clubs send two bottles every two months.  That’s six time a year waiting at home for UPS, which can be a drag.  The ones we appreciate most have two annual shipments; the norm is four.  They usually arrive in spring and fall, since shipping can be tricky in deep winter and wines don’t like cross-country transportation at the height of the summer.

We travel to California for wine tasting every year, so we have certain places where we like the wines a lot, find the tasting rooms and their outdoor areas very inviting and the servers to be congenial and welcoming.  So membership makes sense for us.

At a certain point, you may find your wine rack overloading with wines from one or more of your clubs.  Maybe the wines appealed more to you on vacation than when you started drinking them at home.  Maybe the food you make in your own kitchen isn’t very compatible with the wines you loved so much on that visit two years ago.  Maybe enough is just enough.  Then quit the club!  It’s not a lifetime commitment and you can always join a different wine club and fill out your cellar.


Lousy Wineries

There are two good reasons to visit a particular winery on any particular trip to Wine Country: to taste good wine and to experience wonderful places.  Unfortunately, there are some wineries that have neither attribute.  (It is not Power Tasting’s policy to give derogatory reviews, so we’ll withhold names.  But take it from us, they exist and they’re no fun.)  So why go to one of these wineries?

The easy answer is, “Don’t go”.  But that’s not always easy to do.  For one thing, you don’t know you’re going to have a poor experience until you have it.  And there may be reasons why you are at a particular winery that are beyond your control.  Perhaps you’re with someone who doesn’t know anything about wine but likes the sound of the wine’s name.  Maybe your client has an interest in a winery.  Maybe it’s just there on the road, so why not.  These have all happened to us, at one time or another.

It’s sort of like being at a dull party; you’re already there and maybe something will come up.  How can you leave five minutes after arriving?  At one of these sad wineries, you brace yourself and try your best to seem interested.  You hold onto a glass for longer than usual, looking around, not actually tasting more than the barest sip and saying things like:

  • “I’ve never tasted anything quite like this before.”
  • “What a unique presentation of the varietal character”
  • And the always popular, “Hmmmm”.

Some of the grand palaces being erected by wineries these days at least offer the possibility of architectural interest.  But what about wineries that are no more than a suburban house or, worse, an industrial shed?  You can’t just jump to conclusions; great wineries come in modest homes.  For years, Ridge’s Lytton Springs winery was in the barrel room.  Iron Horse has a wooden, outdoor shed.  Heitz Cellar is a modest stone building.  If you can’t tell a book by its cover, you can’t tell a wine by its winery, either.  But you can be forewarned.  If it doesn’t look too good and there are no cars in the parking lot, maybe you should think twice about entering.

There is a variant on the Lousy Winery phenomenon. You’re hating everything about the place: the wine, the tasting room, the noisy people assembled at the bar.  But everyone else, in particular your companions, is loving it.  And it’s raining so you can’t just wait outside.  This is the time to recognize the wisdom of Orr’s Law from Catch 22:  If you’re bored, time goes more slowly and you live longer. Okay, it’s not a very good rationale but it may be the only rationale you have.

We have recently been travelling in some lesser known wine making areas in France and California and we have happened upon some of these unfortunate wineries.  Sometimes we were the only ones there so we couldn’t leave without being rude.  We sipped; we sighed; and we left.  We recommend this strategy if you find yourself so entrapped.  You never know, the next place down the road may be wonderful.  Or not.

Dining and Drinking in Lyon

Let’s say you want to go wine tasting in France.  That’s a good idea but France is an awfully big place.  The question then is where in France?  If you go to Bordeaux, you get to taste Bordeaux wines.   In Burgundy, you get Burgundies.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  But there is one place where you can have two totally different styles of wine to enjoy and that place is the city of Lyon.  A half hour north is Beaujolais.  The same distance south and you’re in the Rhône Valley (at least the northern end of the valley with appellations like Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph and Condrieu.

The primary grapes of the northern Rhone are Syrah and Viognier.  Beaujolais makes wine from Gamay.  The vineyards in the Rhone grow on terraced mountains that seem from even a short distance to be sheer cliffs.  Beaujolais’ vineyards are on lovely rolling hills and valley.  As we say, two totally different wine tasting experiences.

And right in the middle of it is France’s third largest city, its temple of gastronomy, the capital of the east: Lyon.  Sure, go wine tasting all you want but leave time to explore this wonderful city.  Of course, there are historic churches, grand plazas and elegant shopping.  But if you are a wine lover, it’s a sure bet that you love food, too, and dining in Lyon is, simply put, great fun.

You can indulge yourself in the highest of high cuisine.  Just twenty minutes’ drive from downtown is the Taj Mahal of French cookery, Paul Bocuse.  It has had three Michelin stars for more than fifty years and will surely continue to do so as long Maître Bocuse is alive.  He’s 90 now, so if you want to have a meal under his tutelage, go soon.  It’s expensive.  If you can afford it, it’s worth it.  The wine list is also quite pricey but there are some bargains to be found if you search for them.


One step down are the bistros and brasseries in Lyon.  Perhaps the best of them also have Monsieur Bocuse’s name on them.  Several of his associates have opened top-end brasseries named (with a certain lack of imagination) Est, Ouest, Nord and Sud (East, West, North and South).  They feature the classics of French cuisine.  Onion soup, anyone?

You don’t need a fat wallet to enjoy Lyonnais dining.  The city is full of little restaurants known as bouchons, French for corks.  In these places you can choose among numerous regional specialties like salade Lyonnaise (salad with big chunks of bacon and a poached egg), cervelas briochée (a hot dog-like sausage baked in brioche, chicken fricassee with morels, quenelles de brochet (a poached fish cake in a rich crawfish flavored sauce) all finished off some creamy St. Marcellin cheese.  Don’t even think about rushing your meal.  You’re going to take your time to enjoy the food, the surroundings, the French families at the other tables and, not least, the chatter of your waiter.  In the best places, he’ll speak English and if you speak French, so much the better.  He’s explain the menu, the weather, the history of France and a little bit of life lessons as well.  Enjoy the show.

The bouchon Les Lyonnais

And enjoy the wine.  While some bouchons have broad lists, most focus on just the local wines.  But when “local” means Beaujolais and the Rhône, that’s not too bad.  Go ahead and order what you like, but the true glory of a bouchon is the house wines, each served in a 40 cl. bottle called a pot (pronounced poe).  Pots are inexpensive, always good, never great and just not quite enough for a meal.  So you order another – hey, why not, you’re having a great meal in a great city in a great country.  And you know what, two isn’t quite enough either to have some to go with the cheese, so…  Three hours later, you waddle out of the bouchon content and ready for bed.

There are hundreds of bouchons to choose from.  Some are of relatively modern vintage, others are more than a century old.  There is a web site of the organization that is trying to preserve the authenticity of these wonderful restaurants, www.lesbouchonslyonnais.org.  Even though it’s in French it will give you lots of excellent recommendations.  But don’t restrict yourself to this list.  Explore a little and you’ll find that some are just as good.  It’s really hard to have a bad meal in Lyon.

Testarossa Winery

California makes wine.  California makes software.  You just don’t expect those things to happen in the same place, but in silicon Valley’s Los Gatos you can find Testarossa, makers of fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  (http://www.testarossa.com/) Even better for the visitor, the winery and its tasting room are in a building with genuine historical and architectural interest.

Testarossa is in the Santa Clara Valley, a part of California’s Wine Country we had never visited before…at least not for wine.   Of course we knew the more famous places like Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, and to be honest we had low expectations of Santa Clara.  To be even more honest, many of the wineries where we tasted fully lived up to our low expectations.  But Testarossa was the happy exception.

You approach Testarossa up a steep and winding roadway leading to a large parking lot with a rather large and austere building on top.  It was once a Jesuit seminary, dating from the 1880s, and was also the home of Novitiate Winery, which the brothers ran to fund the school.  The wine making facilities are used by Testarossa today.  Visitors enter the tasting room through a long, arched stone arcade, which opens up into a rather capacious facility with two long bars.  On weekends they add tables to serve guests in other parts of the room.  There is also a wine bar on the grounds.

testarossaPhoto courtesy of Testarossa Winery

One factor that makes a visit to Testarossa particularly enjoyable – other than the wine itself, of course – is the fact that the servers are extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  The winery provides ample training and all are at least level one sommeliers.  It is not an exaggeration to call them wine educators.  Not that they’re snobby and professorial.  Quite the opposite.  They set a tone that says, “Wine is fun; good wine is great fun”.

We must say that we enjoyed what we tasted and were particularly interested in their approach to wine making.  Testarossa has no estate wines.  That means that they do not grow grapes on their own property.  The Jesuits did grow on the grounds, but after more than a century, the vines had given out.  Today, Testarossa sources all its grapes from vineyards up and down the California coast, from Russian River and Sonoma Coast down to the Santa Rita Hills.  To our tastes, their best wines come from the Santa Lucia Highlands, but then we’re very favorable towards wines made from grapes grown there.

A highlight of a visit is tasting the wide array of single vineyard wines that Testarossa makes.  They’re picking up some fancy numbers from the rating magazines and we feel that they’re well justified.  At the same time, we gravitated towards the blends, especially from the aforementioned Santa Lucia Highlands.  The reserve tasting is definitely worth the extra expense (not that much, really, since at $20.00 it’s only $10.00 more than the regular one).

We recommend that, when visiting Testarossa, you take your time and ask a lot of questions.  You’ll get knowledgeable answers and once you show your interest, your server is likely to open bottles that aren’t on the tasting list, even on a weekend.  It would be worthwhile visiting this winery just for the history.  In these days of vanity wineries, it’s a pleasure to see software folks who hit it big – it is Silicon Valley,  after all – making the commitment to fine wine and a great tasting experience.

A Field Guide to Servers – Part 2 – The Hosts

This is a continuation of Power Tasting’s guide to the different sorts of Servers wine tasters may encounter in their expeditions into Wine Country.  The previous edition introduced the Pourers, the lowest form of Server.  In this section of the field guide, we present the Hosts.

What is a Host?  A Host pours wine and delivers it to wine tasters.  He or she knows nothing about wine in general or even the wine that is going into the taster’s glass.  The Host’s objective is simply to make sure that everyone is having a good time.  This is often an admirable trait and it can be quite pleasant to deal with a Host in his or her own habitat.  Unfortunately, interacting with a Host can be quite frustrating if a taster is interested in knowing anything about the wine being consumed.  It is unclear whether a Host can tell the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Petite Sirah, or a Chardonnay for that matter.  But while in the company of a Host, it’s Party Time!


How can you recognize a Host?  A Host appears to be in perpetual motion, moving from taster to taster quickly enough to avoid questions.  You will often hear the cry of the Host, “What’ll you have next?”  If you are able to stop a Host long enough for a question, you will be promised an answer shortly, often giving the Host a chance to ask someone else behind the bar for help.  Hosts can be recognized by

  • Big smiles, even when inappropriate
  • Fast talking
  • Eagerness to explain his or her life story, but not to say anything about wine
  • Two or more bottles in his or her hands

Hosts will keep refilling your glass, which is both a positive and a negative.

What can you expect from a Host?  Wine.  Lots of it, along with a smooth patter and a snappy joke.  When being served by a Host, it’s often a good idea to just catch the spirit and go along with the party atmosphere.  Wine is a social lubricant and there’s nothing wrong with having a good time.  Who doesn’t like a good party?  As would anyone throwing a shindig, the Host will introduce you to fellow tasters, get a conversation going and keep you involved.  The risk, of course, of dealing with a Host is overindulgence, so know when to say you’ve had enough for a while.

How to get the greatest advantage from a Host?  Let the Host run the party; you taste the wine.  Have fun by all means but do it slowly.  For one thing this keeps the party going longer.  For another, you can actually get to appreciate the wine, often in the type of setting when you might be serving it back home.

Where are Hosts found?  Oddly, Hosts may be found in really fine wineries as well as in sellers of plonk.  You are most likely to meet one on a weekend when tasting rooms are the most crowded and the winery needs the most people to serve their visitors.  Look around for a happy, giggly party in a corner of a tasting room.  You’re likely to see a Host pouring the wine.