Maybe you think that all Italian wines come from Tuscany and the Piedmont.  You can find wine being made almost everywhere in Italy and the biggest wine producer is Sicily. If you decide to visit that island for wine tasting, make sure you also include history, art and food on your itinerary.  You might arrive on a cruise ship or on a ferry, but most likely you’ll fly in.  And in that case you’ll come into Palermo.  Before you head out to the vineyards, you ought to see what this city has to offer.

Now, Sicily generally and Palermo in particular have an image problem – the Mafia.  Yes, there were and still are gangsters in Palermo just like we have them in US cities.  In our travels, we never felt the heavy hand of the Mob.  People did tell us that most of that had been cleaned up.  It’s mostly the tourists who want to see the places they know from the Godfather or take a trip to the nearby town of Corleone.  If you’re a tourist and want to see those things, go right ahead.

The Teatro Massimo

But instead of remembering the fatal scene at the opera house, feast your eyes on the Teatro Massimo, the largest in all of Italy.  It’s a masterpiece of 19th century architecture inside and out.  Even if you don’t feel like taking in an opera, it’s the grandest hanging out and meeting place in Palermo.  So sit in one of the caffés around the perimeter of the piazza in front of the theatre, or loll on the steps with the younger Palermians or watch a political protest arrive.  You’ll feel very much a part of the scene.

Of course, you could go and see a grand performance.  A word of warning: Climate change being what it is, it stays hot in Sicily later in the year than in the past.  They didn’t install air conditioning in the Teatro Massimo, so be prepared to perspire more than a bit.

Just one of the Four Corners

Another sight not to miss in Palermo is the Four Quarters (or I Quattro Canti in Italian).  It’s a crossroads with massive sculptures and fountains on each corner.  They represent the kings who once reigned in Palermo and the city’s four patron saints.  Don’t stand in the middle to see them all; these are heavily trafficked streets.  But do wander about and take in each one in turn.

Palermo may be the street food capital of the world.  Wander through the back streets and markets and try a little of this or that.  Maybe it’s a good idea to ask what you’re about to eat before biting.  They make the most of every animal in Sicily.  We’re generally not big fans of tours, but you can find some street food tours that will take you everywhere and let you try everything (or at least everything you’d like to try).  But, oh, Sicilian pizza! And, ah, Sicilian gelati!  And especially, oh my, Sicilian rice balls (or arancini)!  Here they may be stuffed with meat and peas, or cheese, or tomatoes.  They’re coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  Have some – you’re too thin anyway!

Then head around the island and try the wine.

Dry Creek Vineyard

We’ve written about Dry Creek Vineyard ( before, but in a different context.  We’re very fond of this winery and have visited there often.  This year marks their 50th anniversary, which is quite an achievement, and they have been family-run for all that time, which makes the achievement even sweeter.  In the interests of openness, we have to say that we’re members of their wine club, but as we often note, we don’t review wine.  Power Tasting is about the wine tasting experience.

The theme on Dry Creek’s attractive labels is sailing.  As a club member, you can enjoy one of their many member events; pre-pandemic one of them was a sailing day in the San Francisco Bay. Of all the wineries that we know, there is none that has as many club member events as Dry Creek.

The Dry Creek Vineyard winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

And we find that there are many reasons to visit the winery and indulge in a tasting.  We do enjoy Dry Creek (the valley) and often spend a day or more in that region of Wine Country.  When we do, Dry Creek (the winery) is always on our itinerary.  Like much of this region, Dry Creek Vineyard specializes in Zinfandel.  They are well known for Sauvignon Blanc and they make some creditable Cabernet Sauvignons and blends as well.

One aspect of a tasting at Dry Creek that is rather unique is that they make seven single-vineyard Zinfandels and four different Bordeaux blends.  Not all are available for tasting at any given time, but it’s rare to have the opportunity to compare side-by-side the same grapes made into wine by the same winemaker (Tim Bell).  If nothing else, it gets you thinking about the relative influence of winemaking artistry and terroir.

The tasting room is in a vine-covered stone building, fronted by an extensive lawn and some of Dry Creek’s vines.  That lawn is a great attraction.  It has shade trees, picnic tables and some lawn games for the kids.  They’ve even put in a bocce court.  It is meant to be welcoming and family-friendly.  We have often seen little ones running around outside while their parents sipped and had lunch at nearby tables.

If you do want to have a little picnic, there’s a special advantage at Dry Creek.  They’re only four minutes’ walk, according to Google, from the Dry Creek General Store, so you don’t have to pack a picnic in advance.  Of course, in California no one walks so it’s a one-minute drive.

Dry Creek’s “insect garden”.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Another reason to visit Dry Creek is what they call their “insectary garden”.   To be honest, the name put us off for quite a few visits.  Eventually we came to recognize that Dry Creek is rather committed to sustainable farming, and insects form a part of the biosystem that they intend to preserve.  All very scientific, to be sure, but for the visitor it’s a pretty little garden to walk around in just in front of the grape vines.

In these pandemic times, visits are by appointment only.  We can only hope that the disease will pass and the ability to just drop in will return.

How to NOT Buy Wine

One way to think about a winery’s tasting room is that it is a sales showroom.  In the same way that you buy stereo equipment, jewelry or other luxury goods, at a winery they show you many things you can buy, let you try out a few and then, if you buy, get one out of stock.  Let’s face it, wine tasting is temptation.

Photo courtesy of SevenFifty Daily.

Just as there are many reasons to buy a specific wine, there are many reasons not to.  Most obviously, if you don’t like the way a wine tastes, the temptation to buy is much less.  Even if you do, you might not like it as much as others in the same price range.  Or maybe you like it a lot but you can’t afford a bottle at the price quoted.

There is a subtle pressure to buy something.  A nice person has been pouring you wines to taste and chatting pleasantly with you.  It’s human nature to want to reciprocate.  So when the server says, “Would you like to take some wine home with you?”, you may feel like you ought to say “yes”.  (Note that the word “buy” was never came into the conversation.)

  • You have no obligation to buy anything. That’s true in a jewelry store as well, but at least the jeweler doesn’t charge you for the privilege of trying on a ring.  In the old days, when tastings were free, there might have been a bit (only a bit) of a moral imperative.  Remember, you paid for your tasting so you don’t have to buy anything else.
  • Wines at a winery are rarely bargains. In many cases, you’ll find that the same wine sold in the tasting room can be bought back home for substantially less.  There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out to the server.  However, there are some wines that are only available at the winery.  In those cases, you have to decide if the quality difference compared with the wine in the store near you is worth the price.  It might even be instructive to ask the server what differentiates the winery-only selection from their more easily found wine. If you don’t get good answers, don’t buy.
  • You have to take it home with you. If you live near the winery, that’s not a problem.  But if you’ve taken a plane to get to that part of Wine Country, you’re either going to have to put the bottle in your luggage or ship it.  Even if you decide to do one of those things, there are limits.  US Customs only allows you to bring back two bottles per person from overseas.  Even domestic shipping cost can be a significant deterrent as well.
  • Try to strengthen your sales resistance. Remember, you’ve been drinking.  Maybe you’re on vacation too.  Your ability to say “no” is not at its peak.  So if you feel yourself about to say “yes”, turn to the person you came with and ask, “What do you think?”  That can be a pre-arranged signal to turn thumbs-down.  Or if you both are in favor, this may be the time to buy.



Winery Glassware

As we wrote quite a few years ago, there was once a time that wineries gave away souvenir glasses if you stopped by and had a taste of their wines.  In fact, their tastings were free, too!  (And still are in a few places, believe it or not.)  We’re reminded of this because we recently got rid of nearly all of the glasses we had collected on wine tasting trips over the years.  Most of them were tiny and thick and we had too many; we don’t know why we kept them, except for the memories.  A few were of high quality and we kept those, because…well, just because.

But it caused us to give some thought to the role glassware plays in the wine tasting experience.

Photo courtesy of Kendall-Jackson.

In some ways, the quality of the glasses is indicative of the winery owners’ perception of their wine and their customers.  There are still some who serve tastings in small, clunky glasses.  Maybe they just don’t care, or think their customers don’t care or that they couldn’t tell the difference anyway.  Our experience is that many – certainly not all – people we meet in tasting rooms are reasonably familiar with wine and would appreciate a better glass.

At the other extreme, we’ve been finding some really fine glasses in some tasting rooms.  They have copious bowls, no lip (that little bulge you sometime find) at all on the edge of the glass, thin stems and a great feel in your hand.  If you turn the base of the glass slowly in the right light, you may find the mark of an Austrian or German glassmaker, such as Reidel, Spiegelau or Schott Zweizel.  These wineries make, or at least think they make, great wine that deserve great glasses.

But does it really make a difference?  Actually, yes it does.  A glass with the room to swirl the wine will open up the aromas in a way that a poorer glass cannot do.  And your ability to stick your nose in the glass as you sip will enhance your wine tasting enjoyment as well.  There is a sensual pleasure to holding a well-balanced wine glass that you can only understand if you can compare it with the other kind.  That’s why you don’t serve fine wine in jelly jars.

What if you don’t have exceptional wine glasses at home?  Will it make a difference to the wine if you buy some and take it home?  Not exactly.  But wine glasses are part of the allure of wine tasting.  So enjoy those fine glasses while you’re there!

Many of the gift shops at wineries will sell you their engraved glasses.  If your intent is to have a souvenir of your trip, by all means go ahead.  But if you are looking for quality glasses for your home, there are much better values to be had in the stores and on the internet.

And at the end of the day, if someone offers us Château Petrus in a plastic cup, we’ll be happy to take it.