Duckhorn Vineyards

Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon country, and has been since the 1970s and before.  Duckhorn Vineyards ( goes back to those days and indeed makes some fine Cabs.  But from the beginning it has been Merlot for which Duckhorn is best known.  In the early years, Duckhorn was little more than a shed high up the Silverado Trail in St. Helena.  If you stopped by, you might have run into Dan Duckhorn himself filling orders.

The Duckhorn winery.  Photo courtesy of Gould Evans.

Some things about the “good old days” are best left to the past.  Today a wine taster visiting Duckhorn will find a graceful grey building, looking very much like a farmhouse as Norman Rockwell might have imagined it.  Surrounded by vines, the scene just invites you in for a warm welcome, some wine and relaxation.

There are a number of things that make the wine tasting experience at Duckhorn different than at other wineries.  First, you pay for your tasting on your way in.  Of course, you pay first at the movies or the theater and wine tasting is more like entertainment than bar-hopping.  Nonetheless, it does feel a bit commercial.

Once you’re inside, there’s something you notice right away: ducks.  There are murals of ducks, paintings of ducks, decoys, statuettes, paraphernalia of ducks, everything but live quackers.  There is no doubt that you are at DUCKhorn.

All tastings are seated, served affairs in a sun-filled, high-beamed tasting room.  You will have a selection of Duckhorn wineries and often those of some of their sister wineries such as Paraduxx and Decoy.   You will always have some of the signature Merlot, as well others of their wines, which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  The servers, for the most part, are well versed in the wines they pour and can explain a lot about what you sample.

Tasting on the veranda.  Photo courtesy of Duckhorn Vineyards.

Another option is to take your glasses out to the wrap-around veranda and sip while you take in the vines and the Napa Valley hills.  There is something about the ambience, the quality of the wines and the interaction with your server that just relaxes you.  A walk around the gardens in warm weather only amplifies the feeling.

A particularly pleasant time to visit Duckhorn is around Christmas.  They decorate the winery beautifully, which adds to the “coming to the country for a visit with friends” atmosphere.  You almost expect to see a present under the tree with your name on it.

We at Power Tasting are not in the business of reviewing wines.  However, we can say that Duckhorn has made some very fine wines for a long time.  We do write about the pleasures of wine tasting from the perspective of the visitor and we can recommend a visit to Duckhorn quite without reservation (although reservations are required).  In our opinion, it is one of the best overall wine tasting experiences one can have in Napa Valley.


This is another entry in Power Tasting’s catalog of great wine bars around the world, places to visit whenever you are in the area.  In previous issues, we have highlighted wine bars in Quebec City, London, Paris and other cities.  In this case, the destination is not in a city at all, but in a tiny village in the Languedoc.

If you are in the southwest of France, whether in a boat on the Canal du Midi or just wine tasting in the Languedoc, make a stop in the village of Poilhes.  No matter how that’s spelled, it’s pronounced POOH-ya.  The hamlet is surrounded on all sides by grape vines, as far as the eye  can see.  And in the middle of it is Vinauberge (

It is many things: a boutique hotel, a restaurant, a meeting hall and certainly not least a wine bar.  It is situated in a long-defunct wine cooperative, the location in a French grape growing region where viticulturists (that’s fancy Latin for grape farmers) take their crops to be pressed and made into wine.  An international group of investors bought the disused building and renovated and repurposed it.

For many American wine lovers, Languedoc’s wines are a bit of a mystery.  Maybe you’ve heard of Languedoc-Rousillion, Corbières, Minervois, St, Chinian, Faugères or Pic St. Loup.  Maybe not, and if you have you probably don’t know much about them.  If you tasted any of them years ago, you probably found them rough and highly acidic.  Today, there are many fine wines to be had in the Languedoc region, but trying them all requires time, travel and a resilient liver, plus some ability to speak French.  That’s where Vinauberge comes in.

Vinaubege on the banks for the Canal du Midi.

You may have seen those dispensers that for a dollar or two pours you a taste of a specific wine.  Your local wine shop may have one with half a dozen wines on offer.  Vinauberge has them too, with forty wines to sample.  Of course, facing forty unknown wines presents its own dilemma.  You certainly don’t want to try forty wines at a sitting.

Romuald (“Romu”) Barreau and his friendly colleagues are there to help you.  He first asked us what we wanted to taste and we replied we’d like to get to know the red wines.  Then he asked what our tastes in reds are. Steve prefers bold wines and Lucie goes for more elegant ones, so that called for more than one glass.  “Well, if you like this Faugères,” Romu said, “compare it with this St. Chinian.  Oh, and try this rosé”.  And, and, and.  Before we knew it, we had six glasses in front of us and we’d sipped who-knows-how-many different wines from around the Languedoc.

Romuald Barreau introducing us to Languedoc wines.

Aside from his generosity, Romu told us tales of the wine makers, their families, the history of the winery and other lore that only a local son of the vineyards would know.  We learned a great deal about Languedoc wines from Romu.  Of course, we bought several bottles when we left and we returned often.

One particular event is worth mentioning.  We happened to be in Poilhes the night of the annual harvest celebration, held at Vinauberge.  We shared dinner with more than a hundred vignerons and their families.  There’s something very special about being among the good, honest folk who work so hard so that we might open bottles of what they produce and get the enjoyment of a full-bodied glass of wine.

The vignerons and their families gather at Vinauberge for the harvest festival.

[Oh, by the way, it’s pronounced VIN-oh-berzh.]

What to Ask Your Server

People go wine tasting for a variety of reasons.  For some it’s to have a pleasant day in the country; for others it’s to celebrate a birthday or impending nuptials.  Unfortunately, there are still some who go just to get a little tipsy.  For us, the primary reason is to be educated about the vast range of wines and the techniques for making them.  Moreover, we love the experience of wine tasting, which is what Power Tasting is all about.

The educational aspect of wine tasting begins, of course, with what is poured into your glass.  We long ago learned to swirl the wine, smell it, admire the color and consider the expansion of the taste sensations as we sip and swallow it.  More than that, if one is really intent on learning, it is important in any endeavor to ask questions and reflect on the answers.

In discussing the kinds of questions to ask, let us make some assumptions.  First, there is no reason to be intimidated.  The server is there to aid you in the enjoyment of each winery’s products (and maybe to sell you a little) so all but the most harried or uninterested is going to be friendly and attempt to be helpful.  Let us also assume that the server has a basic understanding of the wines he or she is pouring and is able to answer reasonable questions. While it would be valuable if the server were a true educator with deep wine knowledge, that’s not necessary.  Finally, lets assume that the tasting room is not packed, with numerous visitors calling for the server’s attention.

Here are some recommendations for the kinds of questions a relatively inexperienced wine taster (or even some more experienced ones) might reasonably ask:

  • “Which wines are you best known for?”  It is probably easy to tell which are considered the winery’s best wines; they are the ones that are most expensive. But those might not be the ones they sell the most of or for which they have gained their reputation.  There’s a winery in Dry Creek that we return to often for their Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, but when we asked this question we were told that they sell far more Sauvignon Blanc than anything else.  This grape is not a particular favorite of ours but we then paid more attention to it at this winery and found we liked it quite a bit.
  • “How long until this wine reaches its peak?”  Almost every winery will tell you that their wines are ready to drink when they are released and, unless you are tasting in Bordeaux, this is generally true nowadays.  But drinkable is not the same as ideal, so this is a reasonable question, especially if you are considering buying some.  (You might want to invest in a Clef du Vin – also known as a Wine Key – to get an answer.)
  • “What foods would go well with this wine?”  Sometimes the answer is written on the back label.  You might also get a canned answer: white wines with fish and chicken, reds with meats and cheeses.  But perceptive wineries will often make specific recommendations about which wines are ideal for fine dining, barbecues or causal dinners.  You might get tips for not over – or underpowering – the food with which you open a particular bottle.  This also gives you an idea of how the wine maker positions his or her products.
  • “How does this vintage compare with the best in recent years?”  No one will tell you that any specific harvest produced substandard wines.  But 2014 was spectacular in Napanoma; so was 2010 in Bordeaux and Chianti.  So by giving the serve a benchmark, you might get some valuable information.  You won’t be told that the wine in your glass is inferior, but you may be told that it is lighter, more fruity or more elegant.  And if you’re lucky, the server might open one of the older bottles and let you judge for yourself.

Great Experience; So-So Wine

It is Power Tasting’s policy not to give bad reviews of any wineries.  We feel that there are so many wonderful wines and so many owners who do their best to make their visitors feel welcome that there is no need for negativism.  If we feel that a particular winery makes poor wine, the less said the better.  But Power Tasting is about the experience of wine tasting as a whole: the architecture, ambiance, scenery and décor as well as the wines themselves.

We are not arrogant enough to think that we have the last word on the quality of wines; if a winery is in business, someone must like what they sell.  There are some wineries where we are not crazy about the wines but find the overall experience to be pleasurable.

If we had all the time in the world to go wine tasting and an infinite capacity to imbibe alcohol, we could just visit tasting room after tasting room without a care.  But our time in Wine Country is limited and precious and, as with everyone, we need to be cautious about how much we drink, even if we are only sipping.  So it becomes a question of how we treat those establishments where we don’t appreciate the wines but do enjoy all the rest.

Certain places come to mind, although we will not mention names.  There is one in Napa Valley decorated with fine antiques, with a large fireplace and comfortable sofas and chairs.  It would be the library of our dreams, the kind of place where we would sit with a vin de méditation and read great literature.  But we don’t like the wine.

There is another in the southwest of France, high up on a hill with a grand castle and magnificent views over the valley.  It is out of the way and hard to find, so it is never busy.  We could easily fantasize that it was ours, where we would host grand dinners in the garden, overlooking the vines.  But we don’t like the wine.

Another example is a fine old Long Island mansion with “good bones” as the realtors would have it.  It is quite historic in the North Fork’s brief history.  There seem to be concerts and weddings there every weekend.  But we don’t like the wine.

So what to say about these places?  We know about them because we visited them without having any idea of what we would find.  Even though we were disappointed in the wines we tasted, we took some enjoyment from our visits.  We often urge visitors in a section of Wine Country they have never visited to do their homework and learn about the better wineries before they go, but it’s not a bad idea to take a chance every once in a while.  We have made some great discoveries that way.

Even if you are not enjoying the wine you’re being served, take advantage of the aspects of the building and the tasting room that you do like.  Carry your glass with you and look around and soak up the pleasures that that winery offers you.  There’s a great chance you’ll never pass this way again, so enjoy it while you’re there.