The Little Wine Shop

This story occurred in Taormina, a resort town on the cliffs above the Mediterranean, on the east coast of Sicily.  But it could have been anywhere.

The bay o\f Taormina

We checked into our hotel and, as we had reserved, saw that we had a large terrace attached to our room, with a motor-driven shade that made it tolerable to sit there in the heat of the afternoon Sicilian sun.  The view was so gorgeous, we knew immediately that we had to have a bottle of white wine for sipping while admiring the view.  So we asked the front desk where we might buy some and they recommended a shop a few blocks away (and up the hill), called Mamma Mia.


Mamma Mia enoteca.  Photo courtesy of Tripadvisor.

Mamma Mia!  Could there be anything more stereotypical than a shop by that name.  (Actually, the sign in front said, in English, New Mamma Mia, so maybe there was an old one somewhere.)

One side of the shop was a convenience store cum salumeria, the other an enoteca.  Both sides were presided over by a young man named Fernando.  As we entered, he was selling olives to another couple who then wanted some wine.  They didn’t speak Italian and Fernando didn’t understand whatever language they spoke but it became clear that they were looking for a cool, refreshing and inexpensive wine.

After they left it was our turn and we guessed Fernando thought that two more foreigners would want the cheap stuff, too.  That wasn’t what we were after and in our broken Italian we made that clear to him.  So he pulled a few biancos off the wall that cost around twenty euros apiece.  We decided to buy one if he had it on ice but then asked if he had anything better or, in fact, to show us his best wine.  (This entailed a lot of hand motions, a little English, maybe a word or two of French and whatever Italian we could dredge up from our limited vocabulary.)

So he reached back and showed us a bottle of white wine for forty euros, which he said was his best and most expensive.  He was a little apprehensive about suggesting such a high-priced wine but also a little eager to show some interested visitors what he considered to be the best of Sicily.  So in addition to the one we had already chosen, we took the top wine, which he did not have refrigerated.  We had a small fridge in our room, so we bought some olives, a piece of cheese and some sausage and went back to our hotel to enjoy the view.

The ”special” wine

The next day we had our little feast for lunch and opened the “special’ wine.  It was a Duca di Salaparuta Bianca di Valguarnera Bianco Terre Siciliane, and it was among the most enjoyable white wines we had ever tasted.  But it’s only available in Italy, maybe only in Sicily.  During our stay in Taormina, we became regulars at Mamma Mia’s enoteca and salumeria.

Moral of the story: in your travels, when you want a good bottle of wine, ask where the locals shop and get their best.  You’ll rarely be disappointed.


Champagne Tribaut-Schlosser

This story begins in the province of Québec and ends in France.  About a year ago, a friend in Québec City told us about a great value for an inexpensive champagne she had tasted and liked very much.  It was called Tribaut and it only cost 40 Canadian dollars or roughly 30 American.  We tried it and liked it very much and have been buying it since then. So when we took a recent wine tasting trip to the Champagne region of France, we made a special point of visiting their winery.

The Champagne wine trade is concentrated in two cities, Reims and Epernay.  But the Champagne region is quite large and there are thousands of wineries there.  Many of them are small producers located in countryside villages.  So we did the usual 21st century thing and looked up Tribaut on the web, got their address and used Google Maps to lead us there.  Unfortunately, that led us to a winery called G. Tribaut in the village of Hautvilliers.  When we realized we were not at the place that we were looking for, they were kind enough to point us to Tribaut-Schlosser, not far away in Romery. Fortunately, the scenery in between was gorgeous. We were there during the vendanges (harvest) and were able to see the workers in the vineyards hand-picking the grapes, which we had the pleasure of tasting directly from the vine.

Between Hautvilliers and Romery

On arrival, we found a pretty house but hardly what we Americans think of as a major winery when we go wine tasting.  Tribaut-Schlosser is hardly small – they produce 350,000 bottles each year – but they are tiny compared with grandes maisons like Moet & Chandon or Taittinger.  Still, everything is low key at Tribaut-Schlosser.  When we entered, we found an empty reception area. We called out to see if anyone was there and a woman came down to greet us.  She was pleased to offer us a dégustation, since evidently they don’t receive many visitors who just happen to be passing through Romery.

Tribaut-Schlosser makes an impressive number of Champagnes.  Their basic offering, Origine, is an Assemblage (in this case, 50% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir).  Their Blanc de Blanc (which they call Blanc de Champagne) is the one we had tasted in Québec.  There’s also a rosé, a Blanc de Noir and a tête du cuvée they call Cuvée René.  They also have two limited edition Champagnes, a brut and a rosé they refer to as Les Cuvées Authentique which we did not try.  After a pretty thorough tasting, we found we preferred the Blanc de Champagne that we were already familiar with and which is available in Québec.

Even though they were all so busy with the harvest, we were treated like visiting royalty.  We were seated in a cozy tasting room, more like someone’s living room, on a sofa in front of a barrel that served as a cocktail table.  Our host thought nothing of opening bottle after bottle; she didn’t want us to sample any wines that had already been opened.  The assistant winemaker stopped by as did a member of the Tribaut family.  (It seems that a Tribaut ancestor married a Schlosser back in the early 20th century.)  They were all so charming, it was as though we had dropped in on old friends.

You’re really going to have to drive a bit to find Champagne Tribaut-Schlosser.  But we certainly found it worth the effort.




Visiting Napa/Noma in September

In Wine Country, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, September is a glorious month, the time when all of a year’s work comes to fruition.  It is a beautiful month; the hot summer days are gone and comfortable weather is there to enjoy long walks and outings.

In Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which we refer to as Napa/Noma, you will see pickers in the vineyards filling baskets with grapes.  Huge harvesters will be gathering grapes on an industrial scale.  And even though the wineries are open for tastings, you will see people scurrying to fulfill the hundreds of tasks that change grapes into juice into wine.

Destemming the grapes before they get crushed.

As visitors, you get to share in the excitement without the necessity of doing any hard work.  Many wineries curtail tours during the crush, primarily for reasons of safety as well as keeping tourists out of the way of the workers.  What you see in the vineyards reminds you that wine is agriculture; in the working parts of the wineries, you remember that wine is industry, too.

There are advantages to visiting Napa/Noma in September other than observing the harvest.  The weather is foremost among them.  It can still be quite warm, especially in the earlier weeks of the month.  You can plan on taking a dip in the pool after a day’s tastings.  However, the mornings can be cool and damp and it’s a good idea to have a sweater in your bag, because temperatures sometimes cool off in the evenings.

And speaking of evenings, the late summer/early autumn sunsets come in right about aperitif time.  Sitting on a terrace or by the pool with a glass of local wine just adds to the pleasures of being in Napa/Noma.

There are fewer cars on the roads, particularly Napa Valley’s Route 29, because many of the summer vacationers are back at work.  That means fewer little children in the tasting rooms, as well.  On the other hand, the harvesters and the bins carrying grapes to the crushers use the same roads as the cars, so traffic can still get backed up.

In the first weeks of September, you’ll see the vines heavy with grapes.  You can even – shh, don’t tell – sneak a grape to taste.  You’ll find that wine grapes are far sweeter than any fruit you’re likely taste at the supermarket.  Alas, by the end of the month, you may have to keep your eyes peeled to see any laden vines left.

For the most part, restaurants and tasting rooms are still pretty busy in September, especially on the weekends.  Hotel rooms are somewhat difficult to find, too, since so many people want to be in Napa/Noma for the crush.  It’s best to book a room well in advance.  You’ll be able to get a table for dinner on the same day, but if there’s a place you’re particularly eager to try it’s best to make an advance reservation.

The wines taste the same in February as they do in September and you might even find more of a selection of wines to taste early in the year.  But for real wine lovers, there is a certain thrill to tasting wine as it is being made that can’t be experienced as well at any other time of year.

Tasting Dessert Wines

Back in the day, there was a pop song called, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”.  That singer wasn’t talking about an ultra-brut Champagne or a Chianti.  Today, most people who enjoy wine tasting are sipping table wines, not dessert wines.  Sweet wines have been around since Biblical times, but they aren’t the focus of winemaking in most parts of Wine Country.

Sauternes grapes, shriveled with botrytis.  Photo courtesy of

Now there are some great sweet wines available.  The best known are from Sauternes in France and Portugal, with Château d’Yquem the best known in the former and a lot of great producers of the latter.  There is Passito from Sicily, or more properly from the tiny island of Pantelleria near Sicily.  In Valpolicella you can find Recioto, which is Amarone for which they stop fermentation while much of the sugars remain.  The Australians make some great ones and call them “stickies”.  And many Canadian and American wineries make fine dessert wines as well.  But with some notable exceptions, these sweet wines are the encore, not the main show.

Photo courtesy of Wine Enthusiast.

If you’re in most of Wine Country and you want to find out what the wineries have to offer for after-dinner sipping, there are some things you ought to do.

  • Find out if they have dessert wines. Few wineries list dessert wines on their tasting lists, but many have some below the bar.  When you’ve finished your allotted tastes, there’s nothing wrong with asking, “Do you make a sweet wine”.  Note that we don’t recommend asking if they have any available for tasting.  Many wineries only make dessert wines when conditions (weather, size of the crop, spread of a fungus) permit.  So they may make some but not have it for tasting.  By asking as we suggest, you stay on the right side of politeness.
  • Know what you’re tasting. Too many California wineries make what they call a Port, but really they’re just red dessert wines, never approaching what you can find in Portugal.  Whites include late harvest, ice wines (and fakes made by putting grapes in the freezer) and wines made from grapes affected by botrytis, a fungus also known as the Noble Rot.  These are listed in order of rarity and cost. They each have their own character, some but not all of which is apparent at a wine tasting.  The best ones change in color, sweetness, density and concentration as they age.  What you’re going to get in a tasting room are young wines, which may very well be your preference.  But remember that the ages of Ports and Madeiras are measured in decades.
  • Sip s-l-o-w-l-y. If a winery has a dessert wine available for tasting, you’re likely to get one or two thimblefuls, served in a tiny glass.  Take a small sip and let it spread in your mouth.  Think about the flavors: honey, peach, pear, citrus, honeysuckle and other delights.  Then, once your mouth has been primed, try another sip.  It may not seem the same, because you’ve passed the shock of the sugars on your tongue.  This is when the real character of a dessert wine becomes apparent.

Dessert wines are made from shriveled grapes, in which the juice is extremely concentrated.  Naturally, you don’t get a lot of wine from a bunch of scrawny grapes and that’s what makes dessert wines so expensive.  They are often sold in half-bottles, so maybe allow yourself a luxury purchase after you’ve tasted some that you liked.