Value Tasting in California

Wine tasting, at least in California’s prime winemaking regions, has become an expensive pastime.  What winemakers once – a long time ago – considered a form of marketing has become a profitable sideline for the wineries themselves.  We’ve heard that Napa Valley is America’s number one adult tourist destination (we can’t vouch for that) but we can say that the roads and tasting rooms in Napa Valley and Sonoma County are more crowded than ever.

Photo courtesy of Cal Alumni Association

Along with these trends, the cost of tasting wines at the wineries has risen dramatically.  For some of the more renowned wines, a charge of $40 or more is no longer unusual.  It is commonplace to find a $25 fee for tasting from a winery’s reserve list.  There are people who neither want nor can afford to pay those prices.  Perhaps they are just looking for a pleasant day in the country, with a picnic and a little wine tasting to add zest to the day.  For them, paying top dollar for a few sips just doesn’t make sense.

We have long advocated tasting the best wines when visiting Wine Country, because they provide the maximum pleasure.  But for those who would also like to have the maximum value without paying the maximum price, here are some ideas for attaining that double goal.

  • Look for wineries that offer free tastings. Yes, there are still some.  The most famous and by far the best is Heitz Cellars.  Joe Heitz, one of Napa Valley’s pioneers, never wavered from his goal of making great wine accessible and his winery still offers tastings without charge.  Don’t miss this one.  A few others, such as Buehler, Sutter Home and Vincent Arroyo are also still free of fees.
  • Do a little homework in advance. Figure out what sector you would like to visit, keeping thoughts of where you can picnic in mind.  For a variety of legal reasons, picnicking is much easier to do in Sonoma County than in Napa County.  Check web sites to learn if you can bring food.  And then check the cost of tastings.  There are still some bargains around.
  • Buy a bottle. In many cases, if you buy a bottle of wine, the winery will waive the tasting fee.  So a bottle of wine to accompany that picnic may make for a free tasting.  And of course, you can take a bottle home with you for another time.
  • Share your tastings. If your objective is tasting, not drinking, two people can share a single tasting, thereby bringing down the cost.  We do it all the time, not so much for money reasons as to manage our intake of alcohol.  That way you might be able to splurge a bit on a pricier winery.
  • Try the less costly list. There’s no rule that says you only have to try only the reserve list.  And in fact we have found that in some cases, there’s no particular advantage to a winery’s most expensive wines. You’ll find some pretty nice wines at places like Beaulieu Vineyards and Chateau St. Jean in their regular tasting rooms, as opposed to their reserve rooms.

Visiting Napa/Noma in November

No matter what T. S. Elliott says, some believe that November is the cruelest month.  In northern California’s Wine Country, the grapes have all been harvested; the new wine is all in barrels; and even there you can feel winter coming on.  But at the same time, the frenetic atmosphere of harvest has past and the crush of high tourist season has disappeared with the summer.  The general bonhomie that settles in across America as Thanksgiving approaches can be felt in Napa/Noma as well.

A lot of the pleasures of visiting Napa/Noma depends on the time of the month that you are there.  In the early days, many of the trees are in their autumnal glory.  More important, so are the vines.  There will be many brown leaves but also bright yellows and oranges, a few hardy remaining greens and some vibrant reds.  Sadly, the red leaves are a sign of what is known as “leaf roll”, meaning that the vines are getting along in years and will soon enough stop producing.  They will be replaced by seedlings, but visitors can still enjoy their bright color in the fall.

Photo courtesy of

In the latter part of the month, Thanksgiving and the beginning of Christmas season lend a festive quality to Napa/Noma.  Almost all wineries have put on their holiday decorations; they sell giftware and a few are really little more than novelty stores that serve wine.  So you can get a lot of your holiday shopping done while you sip.  For those who favor wine-themed gifts, we have in the past bought a wreath made of vines and a gold-dipped grape leaf to hang on a Christmas tree.

Along with summer’s crowds, summer’s heat disappears in November as well.  Instead of searing 90’s, you’ll find afternoons in the 60’s and mornings rather colder than that.  We recommend packing a sweater and maybe even a heavier jacket.  It’s up to the individual whether this temperature is bracing or just brrrr.

November can be a season for tasting newer vintages.  Wines that sat in the barrels for 18 months or longer will have just gone through the bottling and labeling processes and are just hitting the stores and the tasting rooms.  Of course, these are young wines and you might prefer them with a bit more age to them.  November is really not about what you should be drinking now but what you will be drinking in a year or two.  It’s a good idea to bring a long a Clef du Vin if you have one, which can help you simulate what the wines will taste like a few years hence.

On or about November 1, the rates for hotel rooms in Napa/Noma go down, so you might get a better deal on accommodations.  The prices in restaurants, alas, do not follow suit but since there are fewer tourists, it becomes easier to reserve a table in some of the more exclusive places.  You might even find yourself sitting next to a winemaker, who finally has a chance to slow down and enjoy dinner out after a hectic few months.

That’s the theme of a wine tasting visit in November.  Everything is easier and more relaxed, which may be exactly what you are looking for.

Gary Farrell Winery

If you want to know about California winemaking in the 21st century, you need to get acquainted with the Russian River Valley.  The history of nearby Napa Valley is more renowned and California would not be the powerhouse on the world’s wine stage if it weren’t for Napa Cabernet Sauvignons.  But that is certainly not the whole story; Russian River’s Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs deserve just as much attention.

We say this because we love visiting this corner of Wine Country.  We also have to be honest and say that we actually prefer Pinot Noirs from Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.  But Power Tasting is all about the wine tasting experience, and there are few as pleasant as driving the small meandering roads of Russian River Valley.  And there are few wineries where the tasting experience is as pleasant as at Gary Farrell Winery (

Mr. Farrell began the winery in the late 1970’s and produced wines under his own label in 1982.  He has long-since sold it and the team that owns it now has considerable winemaking chops.  None of this is necessary knowledge for you to enjoy your visit there.  The winery is a wee bit hard to find.  First you have to find Westside Road, naturally enough on the west side of the Russian River.  You will love driving along this shady road, really feeling that you have discovered Wine Country.

The view from Gary Farrell Winery

Then keep your eyes open for a sign announcing the Gary Farrell Winery.  Take a narrow road up a hill and the tasting room is right before you. It’s a handsome, modernist building and most importantly it is nestled above the trees.  If an eagle wanted to go wine tasting, it would land at this winery first.

The interior is also a welcoming blend of wood and windows, with an ample terrace where you can sip your wines.  There’s something about Pinot Noir and treetops that go together quite well.  What you won’t see from the winery are vineyards.  Gary Farrell sources its grapes and does so from some of the better-regarded vineyards in Russian River, such as Rochioli, Baciagalupi, and Martinelli.  They have recently begun sourcing from further afield and now make wines from the great Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria county.

As a result, a tasting at Gary Farrell can be a tour of different terroirs in the hands of a single winemaking team.  That too is an important part of the wine tasting experience.

The winery’s web site now says that they are open by appointment only.  We have never had one and have never been turned away but they do seem more insistent now.  Their web site also says that the tastings take quite a lot of time, a minimum of one and a quarter hours.  We certainly don’t advocate gulping down your wines, but their estimate seems a bit sluggish to us, even with time to admire the view.



The Beaujolais region of France (actually the southern end of Burgundy) makes wines that generate a lot of differing opinions. Some think they are little more than plonk; others, including us, say that there are many excellent Beaujolais, well worth drinking and some worth cellaring.  These points of view arise because there is so much geographic variety in this sector.

If the wine is simple a Beaujolais, it can come from anywhere in the region and is likely made from less than the best Gamay grapes.  A Village  is better made, generally from grapes from the southern end of Beaujolais.  But the wines known as crus are the top of the list.  They come from ten specific communes or villages in the northern end of the region.  They are Brouilly, Côte de Brouily, Régnié, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chenas, Julienas, St. Amour and Morgon.

There is a range of style and quality among the crus.  Some are thin and acid; some are flowery (they don’t call it Fleurie for nothing), some are deep and rich.  And then the last mentioned of these crus, Morgon, has six different sub-sectors, called climats, each of which has distinct characteristics.  The most powerful and best known is the Côte de Py, in the middle of Morgon.

So wine tasting Beaujolais is a much more complicated matter than just driving into a section of France and visiting wineries.  So let’s just focus on Morgon.  Because it’s our favorite, that’s why.

The Cooperative in Villié-Morgon

Assuming you’re coming from the south, from Lyon, drive north on the A6, which is a relatively wide road.  It’s about a 45-minute drive.  Turn left when you see signs for Villié-Morgon, the only town in the region.  It’s a nice enough little town but not one for which you ought to plan a special trip.  But it does contain the Cooperative of Morgon and that is worth a stop.  There you’ll learn more detail about everything contained in the first three paragraphs of this article.  You’ll see exhibits explaining the history and culture of Morgon and can sample tastings from the various climats.  It is fair to say that, as with most cooperatives in France, you won’t be offered the best wines of the AOC, but you will get an introduction to the differences within it.

Because it is centrally located, Villié-Morgon touches on four of the six climats.  So staying within hailing distance of the town you can visit quite a few high-quality wineries without travelling very far.  But understand that this is not California, where the wineries have elaborate tasting rooms.  You well may find that even some of the better labels come from small vineyards and you will have a chance to taste in the front room of a farmhouse.  Also, if you are there in the vendanges, harvest-time, they may be too busy to offer you a taste at all.

Harvesting the Gamay grapes that will soon be Beaujolais.  Note how low they keep the vines in this region.

Villié-Morgon has a few cafés and bistros, but nothing of any note.  If you’d like to have a truly memorable French country meal, we recommend you drive through the Côte de Py following the main (only) road until you come across signs for Le Restaurant Morgon ( .  It won’t set you back much; you can avail yourself of their wonderful cellar full of Beaujolais of a quality you may never have known of; and the food is fabulous.  Leave room and some wine for the cheese course.