First Time in the Hunter Valley

A long time ago, Steve made a trip to the Hunter Valley in Australia where he had his first experience in wine tasting in that country.  How long ago?  So long that most of the world had not yet learned that Australia was producing wines of high quality.  Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace were each US$25 at that time; today they’re around US$840 at one of the better wine stores in New York.  Even considering inflation, these wines are no longer the bargains they were then.

The Hunter Valley is a drive up the coast from Sydney to the town of Pokolbin.  As in many big cities, the stars were difficult to see at night in Sydney, but out in Wine Country, the sky was ablaze with them.  You can see the Southern Cross in the darkness of a country night.  Frankly, it’s a bit disappointing.  It’s a nice constellation, but so is the Big Dipper (which is easier for us Northern Hemispherians to find).

Blaxland Inn, Pokolbin.  Photo courtesy the restaurant.

Across from the hotel, there was a restaurant called Blaxland Barn, today known as the Blaxland Inn.  Sitting down at the table, the hostess asked if he wanted a damper.  Hmmm, what’s a damper?  It’s an iconic Australian bread, somewhat like Irish soda bread, associated with swagmen in the Outback.  And what’s a swagman?  He’s an itinerant farm worker or in some cases what we would call a hobo.  If you’ve ever heard Waltzing Matilda, you know all about swagmen.

When it came to ordering wine with dinner, everything on the list was simply an unknown name.  So the hostess was asked to help.  She hemmed and hawed a bit and then said, “Well (pronounced wail in those quarters) there is one but it’s a bit dear.  Oh, but not for you.”  She must have figured that anyone who could afford to travel to the Hunter Valley all the way from America could afford ten Aussie bucks for a bottle of wine.  That’s what prices were like in those days.  It was a Tulloch Shiraz and it was exceptional.

Tulloch winery today, not at all what it was back then.  Photo courtesy of

The next day the serious wine tasting began, starting with Tulloch’s.  Other wineries visited included Tyrell’s and Lindeman’s.  It’s hard to tell after all this time whether these were top places to go or just the ones known about at the time.  But the welcome that an American wine enthusiast received was wonderful.  Servers opened all sorts of bottles, pouring out verticals and horizontals all day.

There are a few lessons to be learned, even if you never visit Australia and if you will not be as surprised to find high-quality wine there.  Just get used to the fact that you’re a babe in the woods regarding these wines unknown to you and let your hosts (and you nose and tongue) be your guides.  This bit of advice applies whenever you visit someplace you’ve never been before, trying wines you’ve never heard of.  Sure, sometimes you’ll be disappointed.  But just as often, you’ll have the chance for wonderful discoveries.

Val di Suga

If you travel to Montalcino from the north, which is what you would do if you were to approach it from Siena or Florence, you will pass several wineries as you get close to the village itself.  One of these is Val di Suga (, which with its long row of towering cypress trees seems to draw you in for a tasting.  By coincidence, the night before we visited there we had had a bottle of one of their Brunellos with dinner, so we were very interested to learn more about them.

The Val di Suga winery.  Photo courtesy of Bertani Domains.

You enter the property on a long driveway lined with the aforementioned cypresses.  The winery building looks, well, Tuscan. It sits among broad, expansive vineyards some of which are theirs.  The tasting room is modern, airy and offers a view across the Val di Suga’s vines, all bearing Sangiovese grapes.  This vineyard, called Vigna del Lago (Vineyard of the Lake) is one of three owned by Val di Suga.  The other two are Vigna Spuntali, south of Montalcino, and Poggio al Granchio (Crab Hill) high above the village, also to the south.

These three vineyards are important to the taster because Val di Suga makes single vineyard varietals from each one.  They also make a blend of the three.  If ever there was an opportunity to experience the relative influence of terroir versus the winemaker’s hand, this is it.  You can taste the same grapes from the same region, no more than 15 kilometers apart, vinified in the same way by the same winemakers.  Even though they are near one another, the three vineyards have different soils and microclimates so the comparison on your nose and in your mouth are distinctive.  We preferred the blend, but that’s in keeping with our overall preference for blended wines.  You go; you taste; you make up your own mind.

In our early days of wine drinking, Italian wine meant Chianti in straw-wrapped bottles.  (The bottle itself is still attractive and brings back good memories.)  It was inexpensive, acidic and of uneven quality, to be generous.  We were left with a distaste for Sangiovese that lasted for quite a while.  And then we discovered Brunello! This wine is 100% Sangiovese and is one of the great achievements of the winemakers’ skill.  It is amazing what great soil, careful production and winemaking pride can do.  And yes, we drink better Chiantis these days as well.

We found the service staff (actually just one young woman the day we were there) to be courteous, eager to show off the comparison of their wines and able to speak English quite well.  You will find no shortage of wineries to visit in and around Montalcino and will be amazed at the variety these Tuscans can create from a single grape in a single locality.  When you visit, we recommend that you include Val di Suga in your itinerary.


Here’s another in Power Tasting’s irregular series on great wine bars of the world.

Of course, you knew that W.I.N.O. ( stands for the Wine Institute of New Orleans.  Situated just outside the famed French Quarter on Tchoupitoulas Street (that’s Chew-pa-TOO-las, in case you have to ask your way), W.I.N.O. is one of those places with a lot of bottles in nitrogen-filled dispensing machines.  They refer to themselves as a self-service wine bar.

You get a plastic card, insert it into a slot and then put your glass under the spigot in front of the bottle of wine you want to taste.  You can get one-, two- and four-ounce tastings at graduated prices.  There are a few communal tables up front where you can sit and sip your wine, or you are free wander around with glass in hand.

Many, perhaps most of the wines on offer are little-known.  There are others that are quite renowned and are priced accordingly – rather steep for little servings.  We’ve found that trying wines we’ve never heard of is the most fun.  They don’t cost much to sample and they’re from all over the winemaking world.  If you don’t like it, you’ve only spent a few dollars on an ounce of something obscure.  And if you do like it, you’ve made a wonderful discovery.

But, you may well ask, what’s so special about W.I.N.O?  There are lots of similar tasting machines in cities across the US, and overseas as well.

For one thing, at W.I.N.O. you are wine tasting in New Orleans.  Maybe you’re there for a convention or to listen to jazz or try the local cuisine.  And drink (a local custom).  Now, New Orleans has famous cocktails, like the Hurricane (ugh) or the Sazerac (not bad).  It has some great local beers, specifically Abita, available at every bar.  There are good wine lists at some of the better restaurants, but if you’d like to go to a wine bar and don’t want to travel far from the French Quarter, W.I.N.O. offers you a wine-friendly oasis.

Another part of the appeal of W.I.N.O. is the sheer scale of the selection available to you.  Their wine dispensers house 120 beverages (a few spirits are included as well).  They have reds, whites, rosés and dessert wines from the US, Europe and many other corners of Wine Country.  The cost of the pours is based on the bottle price and runs from a dollar for an ounce of an obscure wine from a little-known source, to as much as $20 per ounce of Opus One. Careful: putting “just a little more” on the card adds up quickly.

If you’re looking for a quick education in the wines of a region you’re unfamiliar with, W.I.N.O. gives you the chance.  In our most recent visit to W.I.N.O., we looked specifically for Languedoc wines, just to see what they would have.  In fact there were five or six, but we were familiar with all of them and had some bottles of them at home.  We were amazed to find out also that there were two bottles from a really off-the-beaten-path cooperative in the Enserune region that we also had tried in France.

You can get some fancy nibbles to absorb the alcohol, like cheeses, dips and olives.  In New Orleans, though, if you come out a little woozy from what you’ve been drinking, no one will notice.  This is the town with the motto Laissez le Bon Temps Rouler.

How to Hold Your Wine Glass

One of the great things about wine tasting is the diversity.  There are so many wines, from so many countries and regions, that it’s pretty clear that no one will ever taste them all.  But don’t let us deter you from trying.

There are almost as many brands and shapes of wine glasses as there are wines.  The basic model is a bowl shaped somewhat like a tulip, with a stem and a foot, so you can put it down without the wine all spilling out.  The better manufacturers make different glasses for reds, whites, Bordeaux, Pinot, Port, etc.  Among the better-known manufacturers are Spiegelau, Schott Zwiesel, Waterford, Riedel and so many more brands.  While most of the wine glasses are stemmed, Riedel has introduced some stemless ones; some bistros use tumblers.  Whatever shape or color, they all can hold wine. Besides the wine glasses, there are the balloon glasses or snifters for Cognac, whisky tumblers, goblets and highballs, Champagne flutes and dessert wine glasses.  Some shapes ask for holding them in the palm of the hand, such as for warming Cognac, as an example, and for whiskey when one prefers it straight than on the rocks. Besides the beauty and diversity of each of them, the shape helps concentrate the bouquet and intensifies the flavor.  While it may seem like snobbism to have all those different shapes in glasses, but there are reasons, not just a snobbish thing

There was once a time when winery tasting rooms used the smallest, cheapest glassware they could find, undoubtedly to cut cost.  They didn’t charge for a tasting and they gave away the glasses, which were just one step above a jelly jar and made it difficult to hold it by the stem.  But as time and tastes have improved, better wineries are now offering their tastings in fine stemware.

Almost all American wineries, to say nothing of most restaurants and bars, use stemmed wine glasses.  Of course, a stemmed wine glass is elegant but besides that, the stem is meant to hold the bowl away from the heat of your hand, so that it doesn’t warm the wine in your glass.  Too often we see people holding their glass of wine the same way they hold a glass of water, grabbing it by the bottom of the bowl.  Talking about elegance: this isn’t it.  This is something that gives us shivers when we see people, unfortunately, grabbing their wine glass with the hand around the bowl, instead of holding it by the stem.  All they are doing is detracting from the wine tasting experience.  Especially in winery tasting rooms, where the pours are necessarily small, the relative impact on the wine can be significant.

Holding your wine glass by the stem will also make it easier to swirl the wine in order to aerate it.  So get the most out of your wine when you sip it by holding the glass the way it was meant to be held.

Enjoy your wine.  Cheers!