Advice for First-Timers

Maybe you’ve heard this question from some friends: “I’ve got a business meeting in San Francisco and my Significant Other is coming with me.  We’d like to spend some time going wine tasting.  You’ve been there a lot, so what would you suggest?”  We’ve gotten that a lot.  In fact, the reason we started Power Tasting, in part, was to answer questions like that.

There are a lot of questions to ask your friend first, among which are

  • Are you driving or will someone else drive for  you?
  • Are you going just for the day or are you staying over?
  • Are there particular wines you especially like or dislike?

So let’s assume that these hypothetical friends are going to drive up for the day and are pretty open about what they will taste.   Moreover, they’re not going to be constrained about paying for top-quality tasting.  We would recommend a day-trip to Napa Valley.  Why Napa?  Because that’s where American wine as we know it today got started.  We love Sonoma County and some parts of Santa Clara County – also short distances from San Francisco – but if your friends have never been wine tasting in California, they really ought to start with the most famous American wine locale of them all.

Photo courtesy of Eater San Francisco.

Here’s how we would respond:

  • Take it easy.  If you’re not used to sipping wine all day, you need to respect your limits –  don’t wait until you’ve reached them.  This is especially true because you’re going to be behind the wheel.
  • Restrict yourself to the southern end of the Napa Valley.  There are a lot of great wineries on the southern (i.e. Carneros and Napa appellations) end so you can minimize your driving time.  That’s doubly important, since you’d like to avoid the traffic and not spend too much time driving with alcohol in your bloodstream.
  • Try to taste a wide selection of wines.  You could do all Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, but what’s the point?  So, for example, Etude winery is one of the closest to San Francisco and you can taste top-end Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon there.  Not far away is Domaine Carneros, for more Pinot Noir and especially for sparking wines.  We’d also recommend getting into the main valley; Trefethen is close by and has a lot of top-end wines to offer.
  • Stop for lunch.  For one thing, if you’re tasting wine, you ought to have some food. For another, Napa Valley is almost as famous for its restaurants as it is for its wines.  Mustards on Route 29 has been a destination restaurant for decades.  Or you could drive into Napa town, where there are many places to eat.  There’s also the Boonfly Café on Route 121, near Domaine Carneros.
  • Enjoy the views.  There’s more to Wine Country than wine.  Everywhere you go, it’s beautiful.  If you’ll excuse a bit of American pride, Napa Valley is among the most beautiful.  If you do go to Domaine Carneros, you’ll have one of the loveliest vistas while sipping Champagne…(oops, California sparkling) on the terrace.  Maybe give yourself a little time to drive around on some of the little side roads.  Route 29 is too full of traffic to be taking in the views.
  • And above all else, have fun.  Don’t be over-awed or try to do everything in a day.  You can always come back.

Which One Is the Star, the Wine or the Winery?

In all the years that we have been visiting Napa Valley for wine tasting, a lot has changed.  It’s hard to say whether it has been, overall, for better or worse.  In our opinion, the wines are far improved over what was available in the 70’s and 80’s.  There is more diversity, more top-quality wine makers and (memory may be playing tricks here) the same wines from the same producers are better today that they were then.  More expensive too, to be sure.

But Power Tasting isn’t about wine, it’s about the experience of wine tasting.  In that regard, tasting in Napa Valley today is far different than back in the “good old days”.  In those days, tastings were usually in the barrel room, with nothing of architectural, cultural or sartorial interest.  There are no “two barrels and a plank” wineries left in Napa Valley although there are still some in other wine making sectors of California.

We certainly enjoy sipping wine in a comfortable setting, with a sleek wooden bar and some tasteful artwork on the walls.  More broadly, we prefer wine tasting in a comfortable atmosphere, with attractive surroundings and knowledgeable servers.  These are the types of wineries we seek out when we are traveling and there are many of them in Napa Valley.  Those old days weren’t always so good; a handsome tasting room is better than a barn, capacious glasses that let us savor the aromas of the wines we are drinking are better than the teensy glasses we had then and wine educators are more interesting to chat with than farmhands.

Sometime around the late 90’s or the early part of this century, two things happened.  The pioneer wine makers who established Napa Valley wines as we know them today were bought up by international corporations and these companies discovered that they could profit handsomely by making Napa Valley into Disneyland for adults.  And so they began to build what we term “Napa Palaces” where the objective was to provide an experience independent of the wines being served.

Inglenook winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Some of these drew on Napa’s wonderful history.  For example, the Francis Ford Coppola’s  Inglenook, Beringer and Chateau Montelena are housed in 19th century buildings that have been restored to their former glory.  They would be worth visiting even if there were no wine to be tasted.  And the fact that all three of these do make excellent wines certainly doesn’t hurt.

On the other hand, wineries like Castello Amoroso, Darioush and even the newly constructed Stag’s Leap were built to be tourist attractions.  Regardless of the quality of the wines – and some of these are very good – visitors are unlikely to go away with the thought of the wine foremost in their minds.  They’ll remember the architecture, the shopping, the snobbishness and oh, yes, they tasted some wine too.

Castello Amoroso.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

To be honest, there are some of these palaces we enjoy.  For example, Domaine Carneros is a faux French château (which may be excused by the fact that it is owned by a real French château).  We love their sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs.  But for the most part, we enjoy wineries where tasting their products is given prominence.  Pretty surroundings should add to the wine tasting experience, not overwhelm it.

Napa’s Oxbow Public Market

The Oxbow Public Market’s ( name comes from the shape of the Napa River.  The course of a river may encounter an obstruction, causing the river to bend in a U-shape around it.  This creates a widening of the river, effectively a lake.  This is called an oxbow, because it resembles the U-shaped yolk placed around the necks of oxen.  Such an oxbow occurs in the Napa River, at the town of Napa and this is where they have erected the Oxbow Public Market.

It is various things for different people: a place to buy food and wine, a tourist attraction and a site for casual and slightly more formal dining.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person who loves good wine loves good food as well, so the Oxbow Public market has become quite a magnet for those who take a little time away from wineries to venture into town.  As the weekends can be awfully crowded on Route 29 and the Silverado Trail, Napa Valley visitors might find it a good idea to visit Napa instead, making the market quite an attractive stop.

For one thing, the views over the oxbow are quite beautiful.  As you cross the First Street bridge approaching the market, you see the broadening of the river, and the buildings alongside it.  It is a  particularly attractive view at sunset.

The Napa River oxbow.  Photo courtesy of the Iron Pig.

 The interior of the market is a mix of kiosks and booths hosting purveyors of fruits, vegetables, sausages, wines, books, ground coffee, bread and spices.  Local people actually do shop there, but a great number of the people you’ll find in the Oxbow Public Market are tourists.  Of course, the same can be said of New York’s Chelsea Market, Seattle’s Pike Street Market or Victor Hugo Market in Toulouse, France, Barcelona’s La Boqueria, or other urban markets around the world.   For the visitors, ice cream, hamburgers, chocolates, cupcakes and pizza are available.

The interior of the Oxbow Public Market. Photo courtesy of Madison Marquette.

Then again, if you’re a real foodie (and most wine lovers are, so we’ve observed) you like looking at the food available in any city you’re visiting, even if you don’t have a kitchen nearby to cook it in.  It is certainly something we do in our travels.  If nothing else, seeing all the culinary bounty fires up the appetite.  When that occurs, there are restaurants in the market as well.

Of course, there are many restaurants in Napa outside the market, some of them quite good.  The point is, you don’t have to eat at the market but you can.  Much like going wine tasting, it’s as much about the experience as the food itself.  And in this case, the Oxbow Public Market is symbolic of the revival of Napa, which had been left behind as Yountville and St. Helena, up the highway a bit, became meccas for food lovers on a wine tasting vacation.  Those are indeed great destinations, but the town of Napa should be included in your Napa Valley wine trips.  And the Oxbow Public market is fine place to see when you’re in town.

Hagafen Cellars

Levy’s Rye Bread had a famous series of ads showing people not expected to be Jewish (a little African-American boy, an elderly Asiatic, a red-headed Irish cop) enjoying a piece of their bread, with a tag line that said “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”.  Well, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Hagafen Cellars, either.

“Hagafen” means “fruit of the vine” in Hebrew and is a word frequently invoked in the Passover Seder, a ceremonial dinner that wine is an important part of.  Hagafen Cellars sits along the south end of the Silverado Trail in Napa.  Except for the fact that all their wines are made in a kosher manner, there is nothing to distinguish it from any other winery in the region.  Nor is there anything about the wines they serve to indicate that they are specifically for Jews.

Hagafen does make an especially wide range of wines, from the usual (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and several Cabernet Sauvignons) to some that aren’t usually found in Napa Valley (Tempranillo, Reisling).  Quite a few are available for tasting.  One enticing feature of a visit to Hagafen is the gardens surrounding the winery, where you are free to take your glass and wander or just sit on the patio.

The winery itself is a pleasant Mediterranean-style building and the tasting room is simple and wood lined.  You can stand at the bar and taste, but if it happens to be a beautiful day, the friendly staff encourage you to take your wine out onto the patio

As mentioned, there’s nothing particularly Jewish about the wine or the surroundings and people of all faiths or none at all are welcome.  But if you do tell the folks behind the bar that you happen to be Jewish, the conversation steers in a particular direction.  No one asks what your religion is, but if you happen to know what Hagafen means, well, that’s a leading indicator.  You might be asked about where your family is from and especially about the Passover customs in your family.  We wouldn’t say that Gentiles are left out, but rather that Jewish visitors get a little more interaction of a particular sort.

Hagafen is quite justifiably proud of how often their wines are served at the White House.  It seems that whenever Israeli leaders come to Washington, Hagafen Cellars is on the table.

We would not say that Hagafen Cellars is a destination winery.  There are better wines in Napa Valley, although Hagafen’s are enjoyable.  There are wineries with more eye-popping architecture.  But if you are tasting along the Silverado Trail, Hagafen Cellars offers a unique tasting experience of kosher wines