Dry Creek General Store

Sonoma County has several rather distinct wine growing regions, each of which specializes in certain grapes that flourish in their respective terroirs.  There’s Russian River for Pinot Noir, Alexander Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon and Dry Creek for Zinfandel.  Every place grows Chardonnay.  For wine tasters, one of the problems with the broad spread of Sonoma County is that wherever you go to taste wine, you’re pretty far from a place to buy lunch.

Photo courtesy of The Press Democrat

In the Dry Creek sector, you really have only one choice: the Dry Creek General Store.  This emporium on Dry Creek Road comes complete with a lot of history.  It’s an attraction in itself, beyond the food.  It has been open since 1881, serving gold miners, bootleggers, travelers and locals for decades.  In its day, it has sold all sorts of provisions, as evidenced by an ancient photo on the store’s web site (http://www.drycreekgeneralstore1881.com) proudly stating that hardware and dry goods are for sale.

Today’s Dry Creek General Store is a combination delicatessen and gift shop.  The deli side of the store makes sandwiches from a wide variety of meats and cheeses  on artisanal breads, together with salads.  The other sells  cutesy things that nobody needs but that are pretty little gifts.  But it wasn’t always this way.  In recent memory, the meats were ham and roast beef, the breads commercial white and whole wheat.  The rest of the store wasn’t a gift shop.  They sold nails and pots and towels and, and, and – the stuff of a true rural general store.  Yuppie sandwiches and merchandise make the store more accessible to many travelers, at the expense of authenticity.

And then there’s the bar adjacent to the store.  As of this writing, it’s closed, because some patrons thought it was okay to take their drinks away with them, a violation of local licensing laws.  The owners are fighting to get their permit back and so the bar will surely be open soon.  Then you will be able to see a crazy collection of general store memorabilia hanging from the ceiling and you can down your beer while sitting on a horse saddle.  And you’ll be able to share that beer with a few locals who look like they stepped out of a time warp or from central casting.

Photo courtesy of Dry Creek General Store

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day when there’s a barbeque going in front of the store.  Depending on the day, you’ll be able to buy brisket or sausages or even crabs.  While there’s no documented evidence of such cookouts in the old days, it feels like a throwback to a communal past that may never have existed, but ought to have.

And that’s the reason to make sure you visit the Dry Creek General Store in your wine tasting travels.  It’s a real part of the past, now adapted to the needs of the present day.  The people of the area don’t need a general store when there’s a Walmart just down the highway.  In our times, there’s money to be made in wine tourism, so the store serves this generation of customers.  Come and feel a part of the past as you munch on a sandwich out on the porch.

This Side of the Bar

Part of Power Tasting’s manifesto, as we say on our Welcome page, states: “We want to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar”.  In most wineries, the servers are friendly and in be best of cases, educational.  Some are wine snobs, but fortunately, they are rare.

Photo courtesy of touringandtasting.com

However, the other people tasting wine with you are much more of a mixed bag.  The majority are just folks out for a pleasant day, going about their own business.  However, there are certain types we have encountered who offer both challenges and opportunities.  As a general statement, we see more of them while we are tasting in Napa Valley, because there are so many wineries and it is so well known.  Here we offer some tips on how to deal with the various sorts that you might meet in your wine tasting travels.

  • The Party-ers: If you are in Napa Valley on a weekend, especially at wineries that offer a food menu and tables,  you are then likely to run into a loud group who would rather drink than taste.  If they are not your kind of crowd, maybe you ought to skip tasting on weekends.  But if Saturday and Sunday are your only chance to go, try to get away from them.  The servers are alert to this type and try to isolate them, but it’s hard to avoid them.  So if they are inside, take your glass to the terrace.  If you can’t get away completely, try to find a quiet corner.
  • Bachelorette Parties: A special case of the party-ers is a group of young women who pull up in a limo, previously over-served, celebrating one of their group’s impending nuptials.  (Of course that sounds sexist, but we’ve never seen a bachelor party doing the same thing.  At bars, for sure, but not wineries.)  Our best advice is to give up and go somewhere else, but if that’s not practical then by all means have nothing to do with this group.  They can only detract from your experience and you can’t add to theirs.
  • People You Saw Earlier: It is inevitable that you’ll run into some the same people as you go from winery to winery.  After all, they’re doing what you’re doing, in the same part of the world.  And since they’re going to the same tasting rooms as you are, they are likely to have similar tastes.  It might be interesting to recognize them, ask for  recommendations of other wineries you might enjoy and give them some in return.
  • The Dreaded Wine Snobs: Some people like to share information; others want to lecture.  In a tasting room, a little alcohol loosens the latter sort’s inhibitions as well as their tongues.  The moment you hear something like, “This is good but the tannins don’t measure up to the 1996”, find a reason to do something more important, like examining the t-shirts and coasters.  If you engage these people in conversation, you’ll be stuck for a half an hour listening to someone, no matter how knowledgeable he or she might be, who is more interested in an audience than a conversation.

Wine drinking and tasting are by nature social experiences and for the most part, the people you’ll run into in wineries will be convivial and in some instances informative.  A little conversation can be interesting; too much can spoil your wine tasting experience.

Au Bon Climat

Santa Barbara has two areas for wine tasting.  The so-called Funk Zone is right along the seaside and while there are good wines to be tasted there, the overall ambiance is a little, well, funky.  It’s more a place to party on a lovely warm day than to get serious about tasting fine wines.  A few miles uptown is quite a different story.  There you will find better known wineries’ tasting rooms, more plush in their furnishings, surrounded by ritzier restaurants and shops.  Among the best of them is the tasting room of Au Bon Climat (http://www.aubonclimat.com), also known familiarly as ABC.

The winery is the life’s work of a fellow named Jim Clendenen and everything about Au Bon Climat is a reflection of his philosophy of wine and, to a certain extent, of life.   He has long been portrayed, by himself and by others, as Wine’s Wild Boy, including a very public spat with (of all people) Robert Parker.  He even makes a wine called Wild Boy, with his shaggy face right there on the label.

But what’s in the bottle belies Clendenen’s outlandish reputation.  Au Bon Climat makes California style Burgundian wines, with great respect for the terroir of California’s Central Coast.  Best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also make Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc under the Au Bon Climat label as well as several others that Clendenen has developed.

One of the attractions of tasting at ABC is the rather huge selection of wines available for tasting.  Moreover, the atmosphere of the winery makes you want to stay awhile and taste them all.  The room is well lit, with a large window looking out onto the street.  It has a clubby feel, albeit a club with a lot of wine bottles stacked up on the walls.

Au Bon Climat’s Tasting Room.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

It’s a good idea to let your server figure out what kinds of wine you like and then lead you through them.  There really are too many to attempt to taste them all and the range of stylistic differences argues against trying.  We gravitated towards deeply flavored Pinot Noirs, so we were treated to a sort of tour of vineyards where Au Bon Climat grows and sources grapes.  Their own Le Bon Climat vineyard was not our favorite; Bien Nacido was.  ABC is hardly the only grower in Santa Maria County’s Bien Nacido vineyard, but we were informed that they farm the largest swath with the best sunshine aspect.

Sanford & Benedict is another vineyard where they source their grapes.  It’s an interesting experience to walk a few blocks to Sanford’s own tasting room  and see how two different winemakers treat grapes from the same (or a least similar) terroir.  Surprisingly and rather interestingly are the wines sold under the Barham Mendelson label because they are from Russian River in Sonoma County and not Central Coast at all.

Yet another factor making a visit to Au Bon Climat different is that it has the best positioning in what is effectively a beautiful wine tasting shopping mall called El Paseo.  There are six tasting rooms there, so you can spend a day tasting wines in Santa Barbara and not walk more than 100 yards.

Tired Taste Buds…or Not

A few years ago, we were on an extended wine tasting trip to Paso Robles.  We had been to most of the wineries we knew we wanted to visit, including Tablas Creek, Justin and Adelaida.  We had made some nice discoveries, such as Ecluse and Caliza.  We were fairly intent and the tasting was intense, because the hot growing conditions in the Paso Robles area lead to some very high alcohol content in the wines produced there.  In fact, one winery’s wines were topping out at 16.5 percent. Lucie was constantly complaining about the high level of alcohol in Central Coast wines.

On the last day of our visit, we were just driving along Route 46 stopping rather randomly at wineries along the way.  We had never heard of any of them, so the best that could happen was a new discovery and the worst was learning what to avoid in the future.  But that afternoon just seemed to go from worse to worst.

Now, Power Tasting’s philosophy is not to speak ill of wineries but rather to praise the ones that we believe deserve it, and we’re about the experience, not the wines themselves.  That day, we finally arrived at a winery where the experience was mixed.  The tasting room was tastefully decorated with antiques and the bar was almost unobtrusive in a space that felt like a visit to Grandma’s.  Unfortunately we entered just behind a family with two little boys who, as little boys will, wanted to touch everything.  The servers were in a tizzy, trying to pour wine while preventing destruction of the knick-knacks.   So we have to admit that conditions weren’t optimal for enjoying what was in our glasses.  That said, the wine was simply awful.  We paid our respects and left quickly, hoping not to hear anything break as we departed.

In the parking lot, we looked at each other and said “Maybe we ought to stop.  Our taste buds might just be worn out.”  Perhaps all we had sipped in the past few days had caught up to us and we simply couldn’t differentiate good wine from bad any longer.  There was, however, one winery that we had deliberately left for last because we knew their wines well and liked them very much.  This winery was Turley Wine Cellars (http://www.turleywinecellars.com), famous for their Zinfandels.  We gave ourselves one last try.

Turley’s tasting room in Templeton, near Paso Robles.  Photo courtesy of pairingswineandfood.com

We entered in Turley’s cool, woody tasting room and sipped some Zins.  Hosannah!  They were delicious.  Our taste buds hadn’t died after all.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this experience.  First of all, trust your taste.  Your tongue won’t actually shrivel up and die.  If you like a wine you’re tasting, it’s good wine…at least for you.  And if you don’t like it, it’s not good.  (Of course, if you’re sipping Lafitte Rothschild and you don’t like it, either it’s corked or you need to re-calibrate your taste buds.)

Another lesson is about the purpose of wine tasting.  It’s a joy to taste a famously great wine and maybe even more so to find a wine you’ve never heard of that blows you away.  But it’s also important to find out what you don’t like, to educate your mouth.

And finally, within the bounds of reason and safety, don’t give up.  If you don’t like the wine you’re tasting now, the next one may be the one that makes your whole wine tasting trip worthwhile.

Reader’s Comment: It’s All about the Taste

The following comment was submitted by Paul de (J. P.) Bary, author of The Persistent Observer’s Guide to Wine: How to Enjoy the Best and Skip the Rest.  Paul was a college classmate of Steve’s.

Kudos for your focus on what matters most – taste!

I love Steve’s simple rules*. Most people have an intuition about them, but are misled by all the hype.

Learning to know what you like is all about feeling comfortable with your own sense of taste. You can connect that with the hype once you get comfortable with your own instincts.

Most people get confused about Rule #2, thinking that you have to memorize labels. With all the wines in the world, that’s obviously a daunting proposition…and there’s no guarantee that any specific wine will be available when you want it or that it will be the best choice under the circumstances.

What’s easier to remember is the grape variety (or blend of grapes), the region and the style of the wines you drink and how they fit with the food or occasion.

These are the types of things that are easy to bring home from a visit to a winery and your tips make that experience easier and more rewarding.

Keep up the good work!


* 1. Know what you like.  2. Remember what it’s called.