A Field Guide to Servers – Part 4 – The Retainers

It is important that empowered wine tasters be familiar with the fauna to be found in tasting rooms across Wine Country.  Thus we are publishing Power Tasting’s exclusive Field Guide to Servers. Here we have the next entry concerning the Retainers.  Previous chapters have include the Pourers, the Hosts and the Sellers.

What is a Retainer?  A Retainer works for a winery, but appears more like a personal employee of the owner, whom he or she treats with a deference that approaches worship.  Think Downton Abbey.  Before mentioning anything about the wine you’re about to sip, he or she will regale you with the lord’s, um the owner’s, wealth, travels, highly-placed connections, occupation prior/in addition to wine, parent’s background, hobbies and children’s occupations.  Many of the owners are self-made zillionaires, often from the software business, so there may also be an explanation of the app-that-made-all-of-this-possible.  Expect to be pointed to a photo of the smiling owner surrounded by adoring spouse and charming children.


How can you recognize a Retainer?  It’s not hard.  A Retainer will almost triumphantly make you aware of the Owner before you’ve even had a chance to taste the wine.  He or she is but a humble representative of the beloved owner, always referred to as Mr. or Mrs., never by first names.  Outside the US – oh yes, Retainers are found everywhere – landed titles are often stressed.

How to get the greatest advantage from a Retainer?  Try very hard not to laugh.  If at all possible, express interest in the owner and his or her fabulousness.  Because there is a story behind the wine – there is always a story – listening and nodding may well lead to more and better wine, all to show the owner’s largess and interest in giving to the poor.  (That would be you.)  Oddly enough, many retainers know a good deal about their winery’s production, so you can learn about wine from a Retainer.

Where are Retainers found?  For the most part, Retainers are found in the grand palaces erected to house tasting rooms around Wine Country.  You might find them in more humble edifices if the owner has been an owner for a long time.  Interestingly, there may be a great deal to learn from a Retainer about some of the truly great men (and some women, too) who built Wine Country in America or kept up its traditions in Europe.  There is a much of value to learn and admire about a Mondavi or a Winiarski, a Rothschild or a Quintarelli, so these Retainers deserve more respect than those who are just pumping up the nouveau riche.

Hartford Family Winery

Hartford Family Winery (http://www.hartfordwines.com/) actually has two tasting rooms, one at the winery itself in the Russian River area and another on the plaza in the center of Healdsburg in Sonoma County.  In keeping with the theme of this issue, we are reporting here on the in-town tasting room.  It is on the corner next to the Healdsburg Hotel (specifically the Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant in the hotel) and catty-corner from the park.  The interior is bright and sunny, with a bar area up front and large room in the back that would appear to be a graceful dining room in a country house.  Except it’s not a dining room and you’re not in the country; you’re in a bustling town.  Indoors or at their tables outside, all tastings are seated ones.

Here a server will bring you taste after taste from their list, which is actually a pretty concise one: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.  90% of their wines are from estate-grown grapes and while the winery is in Forrestville in the Russian River AVA, the vineyards are there, in Carneros, Sonoma Coast and other places as far afield as Oregon.  So although they only deal in wine from three grapes, the choice of Hartford Family wines is actually quite a wide one.

(Just to confuse matters, many of the Hartford Family wines are marketed with the label of Hartford Court.  For many years we thought they were two different wineries.)

We actually think the wines are very good, and we suppose we wouldn’t enjoy visiting Hartford Family so much if we didn’t think so.  But to be honest, that’s not the reason we love this wine tasting experience.  Taste indoors if you’d like, but the real joy of visiting Hartford Family is sitting at one of the tables that run along the pedestrian walkway between the tasting room and the hotel, facing the park.  If it’s raining or very cold (which does happen occasionally), indoor tasting is your only option.  But we were there recently on a sunny afternoon in February and found that a visit to Hartford Family’s Healdsburg location leads to the most relaxing wine tasting experience we have ever had.


There you are, looking up at the century-old trees in the town square, being served exquisite wines, not being rushed, people-watching the tourists and the locals alike.  The thought that crossed our minds was simple: Life is good.

Since the service staff isn’t large and they need to keep going from table to table, there’s not a lot of time for questions and conversation with your servers.  They seemed knowledgeable about their wines and were amazingly able to remember what wine came next for each table.  But we found that the wine spoke for itself and that we were so busy not being busy at all that the time just passed away. Somehow we learned just about everything we wanted to know about the family, the winery and the wines.

The Healdsburg tasting room does take appointments for reserve tastings, but most of the visitors are walk-ins, tourists come to walk around a principal town in Sonoma’s Wine Country.  If we were locals living in the Healdsburg area, we’d be there every weekend.

Healdsburg Then and Now

Healdsburg is the gateway to the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and a backdoor into the Russian River area as well.  We think it’s fair to say it’s Sonoma’s culinary capital and it’s quite full of tourists at all times of the year.  These days it’s also the home of many in-town tasting rooms of some distinction.

There is some controversy over how to pronounce the town’s name.  Is it HELDS-burg or HEELDS-burg?  For a long time we said the former but now some locals tell us that the latter is correct.

We remember when the town, however you pronounce it, was a sleepy, almost dusty farmers’ village.  The first time that we visited Healdsburg together, in 2000, there was only one restaurant open where we could find lunch served at tables, as opposed a sandwich shop with fare to eat in the park.  If you went wine tasting in those days, it was a good idea to pack a picnic.  For the most part, we avoided going into Healdsburg when we tasted wines in Sonoma County.

Then in 2006 the New York Times published an article entitled, “Healdsburg, Calif., Emerges as a  Dining Destination” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/travel/20choicesideweb.html .  Was this the same place we knew?  Indeed not; Healdsburg had grown, flowered and become a destination in itself.  Of the restaurants mentioned in the article, Cyrus has decamped for Napa town, but Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar is as good as ever and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen is still sublime.  Alas, Bistro Ralph and its heavenly short ribs is now a memory but it has been replaced by an Italian bistro, Scopa.  Baci is another Italian choice down Healdsburg Avenue; Café Lucia serves nouveau Portuguese meals; and the Healdsburg Bar and Grill is there for a good, honest hamburger.  And if you still want that picnic, you can buy your gourmet victuals at the Oakville Grocery or Shelton’s.

Although the aforementioned tasting rooms and restaurants are a more than adequate reason to visit Healdsburg, one of the great pleasures of the town is just walking around the plaza at the center of town.  Okay, it’s touristy but it’s for a higher class of tourists, as snobbish as that may be.  There are galleries, ice cream shops, a kitchenware store, a few hotels and some bakeries.  No tee shirteries to be seen. In the center of all that is the plaza, a more than century-old park with towering trees and a bandstand in the middle.  Often the square hosts markets, antique shows and summer concerts.


Photo courtesy of the City of Healdsburg

A not-so-subtle change has occurred in tasting wine in Healdsburg.  There have been tasting rooms there for many years.  But in honesty and with no disrespect intended, the wines were not very good.  In the past few years, some excellent wineries have opened tasting rooms in town,  including La Crema, Siduri, Clos Pegase, Stonestreet and Hartford Family.  Each has its own personality, from relaxed to frenzied, but you can spend a day tasting great wine without driving between wineries.

There is a sort of cognitive dissonance about Healdsburg today.  It is very much a part of Wine Country and the tourism trade that has grown up around wine tasting.  But there is also more than a lingering memory of small-town America, especially in the plaza.  Instead of a town to bypass on the way to the vineyards, Healdsburg is now worthy of a visit for itself.

In-Town Tasting

In most cases, the best way to go wine tasting is to drive out into the countryside; see the vines; snatch a grape or two if it’s harvest time; and get to know the area where the wine is produced.  But there are times when this is not necessarily the best idea.  In the Napa and Sonoma Valleys on a weekend (especially a holiday weekend); in Europe during the vendange, in remote areas where just getting from place to place takes up too much time it is often best to look for other alternatives.  One of these is to do your tasting in a town, rather than in the vineyards.

It’s a bit unfair to the wineries that have opened in-town tasting rooms, but most of these have, for a long time, been pretty terrible.  We are happy to report that this is no longer the case, at least not everywhere.  There are reasons to stay in town, but there are also drawbacks.


Priest Ranch in Yountville, CA

Perhaps the greatest advantage of tasting in town is that you don’t have to drive from winery to winery.  A very little shoe leather will take you from one to the next.   On the other hand, unless you are staying in the same town, you do have to get back behind the wheel to go home.  So the plus is you can taste more wine without driving but that’s the minus as well.  Take it slow and easy in town just as you would out among the vines.

When you taste in towns, you trade off the beauty of the trees, sky, lanes and vines for the less ethereal attraction of cafes, shops and everyday life.  In Santa Barbara, for example, the tasting rooms are in two main locations: along the railroad tracks in the aptly named Funk Zone and uptown in shopping centers.  Neither of these are necessarily bad, but a lot of the artistry or wine is lost in an atmosphere that is either party time (!) or commercial.

You lose a connection with the terroir is towns.  The wines are there because that’s where the owner opened the room, not because the wines come from right around that area.  Again using Santa Barbara as an example, many of the wines you can taste are from Santa Barbara County, but many are from Santa Maria, San Luis Opisbo or even Sonoma Counties.  There’s wine there, but no there’s no there there.

In Italy, in our experience, wineries don’t open tasting rooms in town.  For one thing, the vineyards are just outside the towns, within a few minutes’ drive.  For another, many of the towns are too small to attract visitors.  They are little more than a few houses gathered around a crossroad.  Exceptions include Montalcino and Montepulciano in Tuscany, where you find sale di degustazione that feature certain wineries that they represent.  You pay a fee and you get a guided tour of the region, sitting on a bar stool.  It always felt like a shame to us to be there when the real vineyards were just down the road.


A degustazione in Montalcino.  Photo courtesy of Sempione News

Virtually every village in France’s wine growing regions has a cooperative, where the farmers who don’t have the money or interest to make wine for sale on their own band together for common facilities and marketing.  If, as happened to us in Beaujolais during the last harvest, none of the wineries are open, the cooperatives are there to give you an idea of what the regions’ wines are like.  In some, sadly, all you get is a distant hint of the greatness in that denomination, not the true glory of the AOC.  There are some great exceptions, such as in Rasteau or Chablis.


waltAt Walt Wines in Sonoma

There is hardly anything more pleasant than passing an afternoon taking in the scene in the street or on the piazza or the petit place sipping lovely wines.  As with everything else having to do with adult beverages, that pleasure should be indulged with discretion.  We like tasting in town sometimes, but we know where the real magic of Wine Country comes from, too, and it’s not on the streets.