Editorial: Why Power Tasting Has No Bad Reviews

Each issue of Power Tasting contains a review of the tasting experience at a winery, often in California’s Wine Country but also of wineries we have visited elsewhere around the world.  The review never says, “We had a terrible time.  Don’t go there.”  That’s not because we have never visited a subpar winery.  Rather, it’s our view of service to our readers.  We enjoy suggesting places you might like to visit and take no pleasure in telling you what to avoid.

There are many so-called “magazines” available in Wine Country, that find everything to be wonderful.  Their articles are mostly written by vineyard public relations people and the magazines, if not on the take, are recompensed by advertising dollars.  This is absolutely not the case with Power Tasting.  We take no money or advice from anyone in our appraisals for the tasting experience.  In fact we pay to be members of the wine clubs at several of our favorite wineries.

If you read some of our commentary closely, you’ll see that there are some where the overall experience is commendable but we’re not crazy about the wine.  You may also see that we prefer simple wineries to elaborate Napa Palaces.  But we also recognize that tastes differ and that it would be better to let you discover the occasional winery you’re less than satisfied with, than try to keep you away from having your own wine tasting discoveries.

We always focus on the tasting experience you can have when you visit the wineries we write about, not the wines themselves. But sometimes when we make a wonderful discovery, it’s difficult not to write a little about it.

Going Back, Again

We have in the past offered tips on tasting wines you may never have heard of.  But what about wines, and wineries for that matter, that you know very well?  If there are particular sectors of Wine Country that you visit repeatedly, how do you get the most from revisiting a winery that you have been so many times before?  In fact, why go back at all?

The best answer to these questions is that although you may know a wine well, each year renders a new variation on an old theme.  Even if you are familiar with a producer’s wines, you don’t know these wines.  So just updating your understanding of a favorite winery is reason enough.

But unless there has been a major renovation or a radical departure in winemaking philosophy, the experience at any given winery is and should be the same, time after time.  Have you ever seen a movie more than once?  Re-read a book?  Ordered the same meal at a restaurant?  It isn’t that one time was better than another but each experience was different.  The same applies to wine tasting.

We recently took this concept a bit far.  We had some non-wine related reasons to be in Napa Valley and didn’t have time for serious tasting.  In fact, we barely had time for tasting at all.  But the road home took us past a favorite winery, Etude, so we decided just to stop for a quick visit before going along our way.  We were there for several weekends in a row.  Aside from a slight “you again?” look from the staff, we were warmly welcomed each time.  In fact, we feel as though the welcome was even warmer as the weeks passed.  We were showing them that we really love their wines.

Etude Winery’s tasting room

So if you are going back to a favorite winery, here are a few ideas to make the experience even more worthwhile.

  • Get to know the servers.  If you are going to see Susan or Jeannie or Angel over and over, it’s only polite to learn their names and greet them as people, not just a means to getting wine in your glass.  Any good wine tasting experience should include a sense that your patronage is appreciated; that works both ways.  And there might just be a little something unusual that was left, say, from a trade tasting that you might be invited to try.
  • Don’t bother tasting everything.  It is quite likely that there are one or two wines in particular that bring you back over and over.  Focus on those.  If possible, ask if they have older vintages available so that you can accurately compare the wine you remember with the one that they are now releasing.  In our repeated visits to Etude, Lucie went right for the Heirloom Pinot Noir (their top end) and Steve only sampled the Cabernet Sauvignons.
  • Try something different.  Despite what we just said, it’s worthwhile sipping something you didn’t care that much on previous visits.  Maybe it was just a bad harvest.  It happens.  Or maybe it was what you had for lunch the last time that ruined your palate for a specific wine.  That happens, too.  If you still don’t like it, then your taste buds are confirmed and little is lost.  But if you do enjoy it this time, you’ve expanded your appreciation of this winery’s production.
  • Revisit the wineries where you are a member of their wine clubIn this way, there is no charge for a tasting and they will probably give you refills of your favorite wine (within reason and safety limitations).  You’re not a member?  Then join right on the spot.  If this winery makes wines that bring you back time after time, you will probably enjoy having their wines shipped to your home.  It’s not a lifetime commitment, and you can quit after a few deliveries.  (It’s poor form to quit immediately.)  But we have found that cutting the cord with true favorites is hard to do, and so we remain members.

Revisiting a well-liked winery is sort of like having a favorite pub.  “Welcome back, pal.  What’ll ya have?”



Visiting Napa/Noma in October

We are returning to the topic of the best time to travel to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which we consider to be essentially one place called Napa/Noma.  All times of the year are good times, but each month presents its own enticements and occasional challenges.  Previously we have discussed January and April.

As East Coasters and Québécois, we see one of the advantages of autumn to be the extraordinary coloration of the foliage that we are treated to each October.  Until we first visited California Wine Country, it had never occurred to us that the vineyards come alive with color each year as well.  I guess we never took the Turning Leaf brand from Gallo all that seriously.

This photo was taken on St. Helena’s Pritchard Hill, looking towards Lake Hennessy

If you go in the first part of the month, especially the first week, you’ll have the chance to see the last days of the harvest.  As global climate change takes hold, the beginning of the crush is coming earlier and earlier.  It used to start in mid-August but now July harvests of some white grapes is not unheard of.  In October, most of the grapes are in the process of becoming wine, so you’ll have less chance to see them hanging on the vines.  What will be there will be red grapes in the higher elevations and those that are destined to be late harvest dessert wines.  October is, after all, late for a harvest.

All of this is made up by the glorious display of colors in the vineyards.  We’d like to say that the red leaves are Cabernet Sauvignon leaves and the yellow ones are Chardonnay, but that just isn’t so.  As with oak trees and maples, different leaves have their own pigmentation that is overwhelmed by chlorophyll during the spring and summer.  As the chlorophyll fades in fall, these colors come out.  The predominant hues are a golden yellow and orange.  In time, as they dry they become a light brown.  There always seem to be some green leaves that hang on, so it’s quite a palette.

The red leaves you see in the photos accompanying this article are a special case.  As tourists, we love to see them.  Vineyard managers and wine makers aren’t very happy though.  Red leaves are a sign of leaf roll, a virus carried by bugs that live in vineyard soil.  It seems to be an increasing problem, according to some industry publications.  So temper your pleasure at seeing fields of blazing red, as it’s an indication that there may be problems down the road for some of your favorite wines.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When you visit wineries in October, and taste at their bars, the staff you encounter would have a right to be a little tetchy.  Harvest season is full of stress in the wine business.  We’re glad to report that we have never encountered anything like that, but we also haven’t seen too many wine makers at that time, either.  One time, however, a wine maker handed us a stick and asked us break the cap on a vat of bubbling grapes, so be prepared!

Since autumn is the harvest season for fruits and vegetables other than grapes, you’ll have the chance for something special in the Napa/Noma restaurants that feature local produce.  Mustards  in Yountville and Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg fall into this category of restaurant, and there are many others.

Days are still warm, although you may want a sweater in the morning and in the evening.  You won’t usually encounter the blazing heat of Napa/Noma’s summers but again with climate change, you can never tell for sure.

Santa Clara Valley

At the southern end of San Francisco Bay there is the town of Santa Clara, which lends its name to the valley that runs south of it to Gilroy (called the “Garlic Capital of the World”), as well as to the AVA for the wines made there.  There are, according to the local wine trade association (http://www.santaclarawines.com/santa-clara-valley.html) twenty-five wineries in the valley, although that’s just the association’s membership, since we know a few that aren’t listed.

The northern end of Santa Clara Valley is better known by another name: Silicon Valley.  The town of Santa Clara abuts San Jose and other famous software producers, like Los Gatos and Sunnyvale.  These places are possible reasons you might be in the area, beyond wine tasting.  It was the case for us; we tacked on some tasting to a business trip.  Silicon Valley, of course, has long shed its agricultural roots but there are a few wineries that could be interesting to visit.  J. Lohr Vineyards (https://www.jlohr.com/) is on a typical urban street in San Jose and has little or no wine country ambiance, but it does have some creditable wines that are often found in wine stores and on restaurant lists.  We have previously written about Testarossa Winery (http://www.testarossa.com/) in Los Gatos, which offers a superb tasting experience and some top-notch Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as well.  Maybe you can cut your last meeting short and visit these two, although they are quite far apart.

As is the case in much of California’s Wine Country, Route 101 is the main stem through the more southerly and more rural section of Santa Clara Valley.  A half-hour out of San Jose you’ll find a number of wineries to visit.  This is the Morgan Hill district and is the area in Santa Clara Valley with the densest population of wineries.  We’d like to report on some great discoveries, but for the most part we weren’t as impressed with the wineries here as we were with those in the urban areas.  There was at least one that was a gift shop that made wine rather than vice versa, so beware where you go.

Sycamore Creek Vineyards (http://www.sycamorecreekvineyards.com/) offers a very modernistic picnic area, with high metal stools clustered around stone planters with what appear to be olive trees rather than sycamores in the middle.  The winery is a massive industrial building with the barrel room and a metal bar to one side.

Sycamore Creek’s picnic area.  Photo courtesy of Léal Vineyards, Inc.

Kirgin Cellars (http://www.kirigincellars.com/) is California Wine Country the way it used to be…a long, long time ago. They have been making wine since 1916, and it shows.  Their original tasting room is still there and it gives the impression that hobbits must live there.  They also have another, larger tasting room that is actually modern but designed to look as ancient as the original one.  With a wood-burning stove in the middle, it truly reminds you of wine making and tasting in another era.

Kirgin Cellars “new” tasting room

The town of Morgan Hill is where you’ll want to go for lunch.  We learned after we visited that Morgan Hill is heavily populated by Silicon Valley zillionaires and it seems to follow as day follows night that people with money like to dine out.  Monterey Road, not far from Route 101 is chock-a-block full of restaurants, some upscale, some not.  You’ll have quite a few to choose from.

Santa Clara Valley is scenic in much the same way that California Vineyard areas are all scenic.  The hills roll, the roads twist and the vines grow in serried rows up to the horizon.  We wouldn’t call it a destination locale in Wine Country, but if you happen to be in the area, overall it makes for a pleasant tasting experience.

Château Léoville Barton

There’s a lot to be said, both positive and negative, about wine tasting in Bordeaux.  In fact we’ve already said some about the subject.  What makes the snobbishness, the appointments and the limited variety of wines worth putting up with is, well, the wine.  We are not the first to note that Bordeaux produces some of the world’s greatest wines.  If you’re going to make the trip you really ought to taste the best of the best, and Château Léoville Barton (https://www.leoville-barton.com/) certainly falls into that category.

As with everything in Bordeaux, and especially the section north of the city called the Médoc, there’s a lot of history.  Let’s start with the name, Château Léoville Barton.  While there is a beautiful château to see when you visit, it is not properly speaking a château in winemaking terms.  The grapes are actually pressed in the adjoining estate of Langoa Barton.  However, they are blended and aged on the château property.

Photo courtesy of Château Léoville Barton.

You may recognize “Léoville” with names other than Barton after it.  That’s because it was once a huge estate – the largest in Bordeaux, in fact – but was split up.  That’s why you can find Léoville Las Cases and Léoville Poyferré as well.  (An interesting tasting might be the three side-by-side.  We’d love to do that someday.)  The three are in the heart of St. Julien, an appellation known for sunny, approachable but profound wines.  All were named as second growths, or deuxieme crus, in the 1855 ranking.  That doesn’t always mean much today, but it certainly holds up for the Léovilles.

Finally, the name Barton comes from an 18th century Irishman named Thomas Barton who established himself in southern France and bought up some vineyards.  (You may have heard of Barton & Guestier.  Same Barton.)  Power Tasting is all about the wine tasting experience, and when you are in a great Bordeaux château, the history is a part of the experience.

Your tour must be booked in advance and you had better arrive promptly.  You will be met, escorted and explained to by your designated guide.  Ours spoke English, but since Lucie was raised in French and Steve can get along, much of the tour was conducted in a mix of the two languages.  If you have even a little French, you may get better explanations if you use that language.

Much of the tour is of the château itself, which is lovely in the same way that Downton Abbey is lovely.  It is still the Barton family home.  At one point, we were in a corridor with windows facing the gardens.  We saw a man in running clothes jogging by with some hounds.  Our guide exclaimed, “Oh, there goes the count!”

As on most winery tours, you get to see the blending and barrel rooms.  The huge wooden tanks (not stainless steel as in the United States and even much of France) are quite impressive.  Our guide told us that Léoville Barton still holds with tradition.  We think that all that really matters is in the glass, so let both tradition and modernity reign.  Of course, the rows of barrels full of future great wine does raise a thirst.

The tasting itself consists of two wines: Langoa Barton first and then Léoville Barton.  (There is also a Léoville Barton second label, but we don’t remember it being offered.)  Langoa Barton is itself a third growth, so it’s not shabby.  Having the second growth Léoville Barton alongside – both made by the same people from grapes on adjoining ground –  really brings out what makes one wine better, or at least different, from the other.

As we have said before, wine tasting in Bordeaux is snobbish like nowhere else in Wine Country, but it is worth going at least once.  Let’s not forget, they have real châteaux there and they’ve been making great wine a long time before the New World did. You can taste their experience in the glass.  Santé !