Contrasts: Wine Tasting in California and in Europe

In some ways, wine tasting is the same experience wherever you do it.  Someone offers you a glass, fills it with wine and tells you what you have in your glass.  You sip the wine, think about how it smells and tastes and try to remember how much you liked it.  But in many other not quite so fundamental ways, the experience of wine tasting varies greatly depending on what part of Wine Country you are in when you do it.  Of course, different places make different kinds of wine but let’s put that aside.  We are talking here simply of the differences in the experiences you have, which after all is what Power Tasting is all about.

Opus One winery, one of the most European tasting experiences in California.  Photo courtesy of the Napa Valley Register.

Wine tasting in California is rather straightforward, with a few big exceptions.  You drive up to a pretty building, enter a well-decorated tasting room and sample several wines.  In most places, there are a variety of wines to choose among – red, white and rosé – and most tasting rooms allow you to try four or five of them.  In a few wineries there is a dessert wine to top it all off.  If it’s not too busy and if your server has some knowledge of wine, you might also have the chance for an interesting discussion about what you’re being served.

As to those California exceptions, more and more wineries that sell highly priced wines now only offer seated tastings by appointment.  Often a tour is a prerequisite for a tasting.  There will be a smaller number of wines available, but they will all be well-made expressions of the terroir and the varietal.

Domaine la Soumade in the Southern Rhone Valley, one of the most Californian tasting experiences in Europe.  Photo courtesy of the Our House in Provence blog.

Europe is too big a place with way too many wines to make any meaningful generalizations…but we’ll try anyway.  In some places, the experience is quite Californian.  Wineries have built pretty buildings (or taken over quite impressive old buildings) and serve their wines at a stand-up bar.  In terms of the experience, you could just as well be in Mendocino as Montalcino.  The conversation may be somewhat more limited, depending on your language skills and that of the server.  The range of wines you may taste could be very much more limited; in some places such as Bordeaux, Burgundy or Chianti they only make a red and a white and the only variety is based on the level of quality.

There are several other variations in Europe.  The biggest, best known producers only offer tastings by appointment, if they do so at all.  The service will be in well-spoken English, because you reserved it that way.  There may be only one wine to taste and it will be very good.

At the other extreme, there are many instances in Europe where a tasting, such as it is, is held in the winemaker’s kitchen, with that fellow or his aunt serving you whatever they make.  In some places that may be only one wine, but more likely you find a fairly broad selection of the same type of wine from their properties around the region.

Since these generalizations are so broad, we recommend you do a little homework before you travel to taste wine in Europe.  It will save you from misunderstandings and disappointments.

Pine Ridge Vineyards

People who visit the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley often drive past Pine Ridge (  Maybe they’re looking for the eponymous vineyards or maybe they’re just hurrying back to Napa town, but they really ought to pull over and stop at Pine Ridge.  We have been there many times and have had diverse experiences, all wonderful.

Another reason people may pass by Pine Ridge is that the building itself cannot compare with the Napa palaces up and down the Silverado Trail.  To us, that’s a positive.  The winery itself is a pleasing structure, in a sort of Spanish mission style.  The tasting room is also attractive but low-key.  It has a bar and some wine on the walls and that’s about it.

What makes a visit to Pine Ridge come alive is the wine.  They are best known by far for their Cabernet Sauvignon.  As you can see on their web site, they have Cab, better Cab (which they call Fortis) and Other Red Wine.  Interestingly, Pine Ridge produces Cabernet Sauvignon from three AVAs other than Stags Leap (Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville) as well as several blends from their properties.  It is unusual for all of them to be offered for tasting but of those we have tried, each has distinctly different characteristics.

Don’t miss some of those “other” reds.  There’s a very fine Merlot and although we’re just getting used to California Malbec, theirs is pretty good.  We’re not as fond of white wine as red, but some of their white varietals are quite interesting.  They have a Rhône blend of Chenin Blanc and Viognier that isn’t quite like anything else we’ve tried in Napa Valley.

These sad days, all the tastings at Pine Ridge are outdoors, but when the pandemic passes and you can taste inside once again, ask for a tour of their caves and their tasting lounge for wine club members.  By itself, that lounge is enough to make us consider joining their club.

We must tell a few stories about the service we have received at Pine Ridge.  On our most recent, and most impressive, visit on a cold December afternoon, we had a true educator who showed Pine Ridge’s wines to their best advantage and then led us on the aforementioned tour.  In all our tastings there, this was the best.

But it was not the most memorable.  We came there once near the end of a hot summer’s day.  It was pleasant to sit out on their terrace and have the server bring us wine from inside.  The fellow knew absolutely nothing about wine (when questioned, he brought us the book he was supposed to have already read) but he sure wanted us to have a good time.  He was a host extraordinaire.  There was a few other couples on the terrace at that time and we were treated to a real party.

By the way, when you pull into the parking lot, look to your left.  There’s a hill with some rows of vines.  At the ridge of the hill, there is a row of pine trees.  Aha!

Seated Tastings

Because of the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, all tastings in California’s wineries are by appointment and they are all seated, outdoor tastings.  [As we went to press, California allowed some indoor tasting.]  If the weather is right, these can be quite enjoyable.  But they are different than bellying up to the bar and trying what’s available that day.  Seated tastings were beginning to be a trend even before Covid-19, with distinct plusses and minuses.


Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

So, in the spirit of the times, we’d like to offer a few tips for seated tastings.

  • Some tastings are just for you. Assuming that you are travelling with your significant other, that means the tasting is made up of the two of you, a table, several glasses and bottles and the server.  It is very difficult in these circumstances for the two of you to share candid appraisals of what you are being served.  You probably can’t even be comfortable frowning after sipping and then pouring the wine out.  If you came intending to try their famous Cabernet Sauvignon and they insist on starting you with the Chardonnay, you’re stuck.  So just remember that’s the way they do it and move ahead.
  • Other tastings are with a group. It may feel like a party, but it’s not a party.  A little polite conversation is always acceptable, but your opinions are best kept quietly to yourselves.  We two know each other’s tastes and may say, “I think this is your style”.  But when some previously overserved stranger is intent on singing the praises of a Sauvignon Blanc that turns you off, reply with “Glad you enjoy it” and turn your attention to the person you came with.
  • It’s harder to have any little special somethings. One of the benefits of being an informed wine taster is that good servers often have something hidden away that they save for people who they think will appreciate it.  It’s tough for a server to reach under the bar when there is no bar.  What has worked to our advantage on a few occasions is to ask for something that isn’t on their list (a dessert wine, for example) and if it’s available, the server may bring you a little at the end.  But it’s difficult to do that when there are still people at nearby tables.
  • The best seated tastings make you feel special. As is often the case, the pleasure of a tasting comes down to the quality of the server.  We have experienced a server who just radiated that we were her tenth seated tasting of the week and she couldn’t wait for Friday afternoon.  But we have also had more than a few who drew out our interest in wine, shared theirs with us, and generally made us feel more like a guest than a customer.  Of course, it helped that they were serving very good wine, which is often the case with seated tastings.  We left with a warm feeling not just for the server, but for the winery itself.

Contrasts in Places to Visit: California and Europe

The Places to Visit feature in Power Tasting is about the other things to do when you’re making a trip to somewhere in Wine Country.  Since most of our wine tasting experience (and maybe that of our readers) is in California and in Europe, we thought we’d compare the two in terms of non-wine visiting.

Photo courtesy of

Woody Guthrie sang that “California is a Garden of Eden, a Paradise to live in and see”.  He went on to say less positive things, but let’s leave it there because it’s true.  The Golden State has it all: sandy beaches, rocky coastline, desert, mountains, farmland and cities.  It is also unquestionably the source of the finest wines made in the United States, which makes it the premier American destination for wine tasting.  And it has lovely places to visit that aren’t about wine.  There are great cities, ski resorts, and charming towns that speak to American history.  We love it and travel there often.  But for places to visit, it’s not Europe.

Reims Cathedral in Champagne.  

Now, as noted elsewhere in this issue, Europe is a big place with a lot of locations where wine is made.  Perhaps somewhere in Europe there is an area where they make wine but there is nothing else of interest.  Perhaps, but we doubt it.  In our experience, everywhere wine is made, there is a cathedral or a church worth visiting somewhere nearby.  There is a café with delicious coffee and pastries.  There is a market somewhere in the area almost every day.  And there are a few millennia of history.

Somewhere around the vineyards – sometimes in the vineyards themselves – a battle was fought.  Particularly in France, there is a monument to the glorious fallen heroes of each village.  We have always found it moving to read the names and visit the local cemetery to see those same names echoed over decades and centuries.  The same names are now also over the butcher shop and the bakery.  And on the labels of the wines made there.

In many of the places where wine is made there are castles to see from the road and to visit.  In many cases, the descendants of the nobles who built the castles still live there while others now are used as bed-and-breakfasts.  Or both.  We once had the experience in the Dordogne of sleeping in an 11th century castle and having breakfast served to us by the Count himself!

The overall point of this comparison is that wine tasting in California is primarily about wine. Almost anywhere you can taste wine in Europe you can experience something else that is wonderful.  Even in places where everyone you see is in the wine business, one way or another, they have lives and histories that transcend wine.  The place is in their stones and in their bones.  So if you’re fortunate enough to go wine tasting in Europe, make sure to immerse yourself in the places and people and try to share their lives as much as is possible for a visitor.  If for no other reason, it will give you a special appreciation for their wines that you can’t get any other way.



Editorial: Wine Tasting Then and Now

We have gone wine tasting for many years, decades actually.  It is our avocation and it enriches our lives.  As Americans, we taste the wines of California more frequently than any other part of Wine Country, but have also visited many other locations.  We often go to European destinations, especially in France and Italy.

But not this year.

Because of Covid-19, we have curtailed our travels and do not go to places with crowds.  We’re sure many of our readers are imposing the same restrictions on themselves.  So, for example, this will be our first year without wine tasting in California since 1976.  Alas, but there are worse fates than skipping tasting rooms and there have been too many sad cases to feel too sorry for ourselves.

Many wineries have been forced to close their tasting rooms for various periods of time.  As we write, many Napa and Sonoma wineries are open for seated tastings outdoors, by appointment only.  We’re sure that must be fun, in its way, but it is a different experience than the ones we have enjoyed over the years.

Like so many people, for reasons more important than wine tasting, we eagerly await the conquest of this disease so we can return to Wine Country.  In the meantime, we are supporting our favorite wineries by ordering remotely and refilling our cellar.  We’re making a point to open some of our better bottles and using wine to add pleasure to our lives.  We remain confident that there will be better time ahead and that we will see the vineyards in bloom again…soon.