Planning for a Napa/Noma Trip, Updated

For more than four decades, we would travel to California at least once a year to go wine tasting.  Occasionally we’d go to the Central Coast or a smaller, outlying sector of California’s Wine Country, which means most of the state.  But usually our destination was either Napa Valley or Sonoma County, sometimes both.  Then the pandemic came along, and like a lot of people, our travels were interrupted for a few years.

For a long time, planning for a wine tasting trip was fairly simple: flight, car and hotel.  The rest was mostly a matter of serendipity.  We’d choose an AVA, drive there and stop wherever we wanted.   We would park, walk in, belly up to the bar and taste.  When we were finished, we’d get back into the car and head up the road to do it again.

For better or worse, more planning is required these days.

  • It still makes sense to limit a day’s tastings geographically. We want to be tasting, not driving from Calistoga to Napa and then back to St. Helena.  Why waste time behind the wheel when we could be in a tasting room?  More important, when the purpose of the day’s activities is sipping alcohol, it’s really advisable to minimize driving as much as possible.
  • Appointments are necessary. Many wineries now have a “By Appointment Only” policy.  Smaller wineries – and some of the larger, snootier ones – have long been that way. That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa/Noma wineries are available only with a reservation.

A seated tasting at Black Stallion.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

  • Expect fewer but longer seated tastings. Many wineries, as a by-product of their appointment requirements, now only offer seated tastings.  Bellying up to the bar is not an option anymore or there is no bar to belly up to.  Therefore, we taste on their schedules rather than our own.   The ambiance is more guest than bar patron, which has plusses and minuses.
  • Sharing is more difficult. Since they are seated tastings, two people can’t occupy one chair.  As a result, both will have a full tasting.  Sure, we can each sip only a little but the temptation to take a few more sips is quite apparent and the cost of tasting becomes more expensive.
  • Lunch is more important than ever, but harder. If we are likely to drink a little more at each tasting, we need to get some food into us.  But fitting in a restaurant between winery visits is a challenge, especially in areas where restaurants are few and far between.
  • Packing a picnic may be the only choice. There are no restaurants and often not even delis in certain areas.  For example, there used to be the Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley, but there isn’t anything now.  And try finding a restaurant in the further extremes of Russian River.  Even with a packed lunch, there aren’t that many wineries with picnic tables in Sonoma County and hardly any at all in Napa Valley.  Dining in the car may be necessary but it’s unpleasant.

All of which is to say, Napa/Noma still has some of America’s best wineries available to visit.  They just take more preparation to enjoy them than it used to.

Écluse Wines

Écluse Wines (, in Paso Robles, offers wine tasting the way it used to be in the long gone Napa Valley times.  The tastings are held in the barrel room.  The bottles are laid out on a plank between two barrels.  And if you’re lucky, your glass will be filled by the owner and winemaker, Steve Lock.

Steve Lock, proprietor and winemaker, Écluse Wines.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Mr. Lock and his wife Pam started their vineyard in 1997 and began making wine from their own property in 2001.  They have focused on Bordeaux and Rhône grapes ever since.  And, of course, since they’re in Paso Robles, they grow Zinfandel.

The setting of Écluse, atop a hill off a back road in Paso Robles, is quite rustic.  However, there’s nothing bucolic about the winemaking.  They are quite proud of the awards they have won, especially those from the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual wine competition.

The Central Coast climate leads to very high sugar concentrations.  The Locks believe in letting their grapes ripen to their peak flavors, so the alcohol content of their wines tends to run quite high.  Since they offer a significant number of their wines at each tasting, a bit of restraint is in order for the visitors.

Those wines fall into two categories.  There are single varietal wines, such as Merlot, Malbec and Zinfandel.  But then there are blends.  For a few examples, Ensemble is Écluse’s five-grape Bordeaux blend.  This you will find elsewhere. The others are like nothing else you’re likely to find in the Central Coast, or in all of California for that matter.  Improv is Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Carignan. Insider has Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec (not so unusual) but half the wine is made from Tannat grapes!  A visit at Écluse is like a trip to Australia, without having to cross the Pacific.

The barrel room at Écluse.  Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Wineries.

Another distinguishing feature of a tasting at Écluse is that all of them include a barrel tasting.  If they’re not too crowded and you show genuine interest, Mr. Lock may treat you to an extraordinary experience.  He’ll draw wine from three barrels, each with oak of a different origin: France, Hungary and the United States.  The wine you taste will be from the same grape and vintage so the only differentiator is the wood.  This is an unforgettable experiment that offers proof of Écluse’s commitment to their wines.

Écluse is only open from Thursday through Sunday and reservations are advisable.  But we have found that if you’re not going to be in Paso Robles on the weekend, a call might win you a private tasting, if they can accommodate you.

There’s a sly play on words in the name.  Écluse is the French word for lock, of the sort that are found on canals to raise and lower the boats.  Pictures of a lock are on the labels and considering the family name of the owner…



Visiting Napa Valley for the First Time

Decades ago we visited Napa Valley for the first time.  It was a life-altering experience…well, vacation altering, at any rate.  Traveling to winemaking areas for the purpose of visiting wineries and tasting their products is an experience we have relived many times since.  Napa Valley was not only our first destination but also the one we have returned to the most often over the years.

The iconic Stag’s Leap winery in the 1970’s.  Photo courtesy of The Rainbow Times.

It is a very different experience today than it was then.  In those days, wine tasting was much more casual.  The founders of many namesake wineries were alive and pouring tastes for visitors.  The servers – owners and workers, generally – stood behind a plank stretched between two barrels and poured a few thimblefuls of wine into tiny glasses that we were urged to take home with us.  No one thought of charging for a tasting.

As first-timers, we were in awe. There were rows and rows of vines stretching, so it seemed, in all directions as far as the eye could see.  There were no Napa palaces at that time.  All the wineries were combinations of factories, warehouses and working farms, much as can be seen in less-discovered parts of the world these days.

The wines that were available for sale were a great deal less expensive.  The best in the house could be bought for ten dollars or less.  (To be fair, $10 sounded like a lot more money in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.)  Some of the wines that we bought then are still among our favorites, such as Robert Mondavi or Louis M. Martini.  (Although we never had the pleasure to meet Mr. Mondavi, Mr. Martini once served us wine.)  The cost of their top wines are now counted in the hundreds of dollars.

Stag’s Leap winery today.

We try, with some difficulty, to imagine what the experience of a first-time visitor (and novice taster) must be like today.  Almost all the founders have passed away.  Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap and Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills are approaching the century mark, but they are virtually the only ones left.  Most of the major wineries are the property of multinational corporations.  The vines are still there but the tasting facilities are in many cases “visitors centers” architected to impress.  Impressive they are, but visitors’ encounters are starkly different than ours was.

Even before the pandemic, the cost of a tasting had become rather steep in many wineries, enough to be prohibitive for tasters as young today as we were then.  Of course, the price for a glass of wine in a restaurant or bar has also increased, so wine tasting is not that out of line in dollar terms.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa wineries are available for tasting by appointment only and the price for tasting has increased tremendously.  That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.

We still have a sense of wonder when we visit sectors of Wine Country we’ve never encountered before.  And we still have a great time in Napa.  But it will never be our first time again.

Mustards Grill

Power Tasting does not review restaurants.  This article is about a restaurant, but it’s not about the food, the drinks or the service but rather a special restaurant as a destination in itself.

Mustards Grill has been sitting alongside Route 29 in Yountville since 1983.  It was opened by Cindy Pawlcyn back then as a self-described “deluxe truckstop”.   We’ve been to truckstops, and that’s not what Mustards is.  Truckstops have big rigs in the parking lot, showers, and large persons more intent on nourishment and a quick getaway than on fine dining.

Photo Courtesy of Open Table.

What Mustards is and always has been is a roadhouse, a great American throwback, and that’s what makes it a Place to Visit.  If you feel as though you’ve heard of roadhouses, that’s probably because you came across the term in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was the ultimate chronicler of an emergent upper middle class in the 1920’s, now a century past.

A roadhouse was a drinking and dining establishment in the rapidly changing outskirts of major cities.  The boys had come marching home from World War I and having seen Gay Paree wanted no more of life on the farm.  Prospering in the post-war boom, they had snazzy roadsters and straw boaters and wanted to get out of town and have a good time.  The girls of the time were no less eager, with their bobbed hair and turned down hose.  Roadhouses spring up to meet a market demand.

Which brings us to Mustards.  Napa Valley was making some pretty fine wine in 1983, but once the sun went down, there was no place of any quality to get a meal or a drink.  Like the soon-to-be-suburbs of the 1920’s, Napa was changing its identity from a rural sector not too far from San Francisco into a winemaking (and tasting) mecca.  Ms. Pawlcyn started Mustards to meet a latter-day market demand for a simple place with not so simple food and lots of wine.  (It’s also worth visiting for its vegetable gardens, which we addressed in a previous article – still worth reading.)

She tipped her intentions on the side of the building, announcing that steaks, chops, ribs and “way too many wines” are to be had within.  From that day to this, Mustards has kept its promise.

There was a seamy side to roadhouses back when, including dancing flappers , gambling, bar fights and prostitution.  None of that is present at Mustards, of course, but for out-of-town visitors there is a sense that you’ve happened upon something only the insiders know about, something like a speakeasy (the urban equivalent of a roadhouse).  That’s because you’re as likely to be dining at a table next to locals and winemakers as other tourists.

A Stutz Bearcat.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

We always drive up to Mustards in a car we rented at the airport.  Please excuse us if we pretend that we’re in a Stutz Bearcat, the quintessential roadster, wearing racoon coats.  We’ve been stopping at this bit of Americana through all the years of its existence and we can’t thinking of being in Napa Valley without going there.