We are inveterate wine tasters and have made wine tasting trips many times.  Others we know are mildly interested in wine tasting and have made only one voyage to Wine Country.  Almost all of them remember that experience warmly but not enough so to do it again, or at least not yet.

To be honest, the various trips blend together in our memories.  What made one trip so different that it stands out in our minds?  Not much, actually.  But there are certain mental pictures that do regularly pop up.  They’re snapshots, really, not enough for a whole article but we’d like to share anyway.

There was the first trip wine tasting we took together to Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  We were young(er), very much in love and a mellow early summer sun was shining down on us as we drove our rented convertible down Dry Creek Road.  If there were a label on this picture, it would say, “Happiness”.

Chateau Palmer.  Photo courtesy of Decanter China.

One time we showed up at a top Bordeaux vineyard, Château Palmer, without a necessary appointment.  Worse yet, it was during the lunchtime break and the winery wasn’t even open.  However, just as we were leaving, a group of French and American restauranteurs showed up for a private tour with the wine maker.  We just tagged along and finally arrived in the salon, where Monsieur announced, “C’est teatime” meaning he was opening bottles, which we got to share.

On another Bordeaux trip, we were there for the vendange, the harvest.  We were at Cheval Blanc, one of St. Emilion’s finest, where we saw the pickers hard at work in the vineyard and went to take a photo or two.  The workers stopped picking, looked at us with some evident hostility, and started hissing among themselves in a language we didn’t understand, maybe Arabic, maybe Roma.  That was a photograph never taken.

We were in Paso Robles for a few days where we knew few of the wineries, so almost every place we went was a discovery.  On our last afternoon there, we visited one winery after the other whose products we just didn’t care for.  After the last, we thought sadly that we had overtaxed our taste buds and just weren’t able to tell good from bad anymore.  But we hadn’t been to one of our favorites yet and decided that Turley would be our final stop for the day.  Let us simply say there was nothing wrong with our tongues.

We had just arrived in Sonoma Valley and had visited our first tasting room.  We were on our way to Arrowood, but overshot the entrance to the winery, and so had to turn around on a rather narrow stretch of the Sonoma Highway.  This required a few back-and-forths to accomplish and unfortunately, we blocked the progress of a police car.  The cop was unnecessarily peeved and pulled us over for a sobriety test.  Of course, passing was not a problem.  The officer was mightily annoyed that he couldn’t drag us in for DWI.  But it was a good lesson to be aware of alcohol, driving and the police when wine tasting.

There was that time we were in the Rhône Valley in Provence and drove to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  We went to Domaine Beaurenard. We had been there years ago and had a private tour with the owner, who happened to be there at the time of our visit.  We had the great pleasure to have a tasting with Monsieur Paul Coulon, the owner of Château Beaurenard.  Since then, each time we open a bottle of his wine, we call it *the wine of Monsieur Coulon*.

Each of these snapshots brings a smile to think about them.  There are surely many more to be remembered that we might share with our readers later.

Old Town San Diego

The Temecula Valley is a “forgotten” corner of California’s Wine Country.  Much that is written about it (including in a previous issue of Power Tasting) starts with, “If you happen to be in San Diego…”.  This time, we’ll take it the other way: If you happen to be wine tasting in Temecula, San Diego isn’t far away.  And if you happen to be in San Diego, Old Town is a definite place to visit.

Let us be honest and begin by saying that Old Town is a bit touristy.  Maybe more than a bit.  If the shops and the souvenirs were the only attraction, we would neither go there nor recommend it.  But there is a great deal more, starting with history.

This is where California was born.  In 1769, Father Junipero Serra established a mission next to a fort called the Presidio in exactly the spot where Old Town is today.  Other missions followed up and down what is now California.  It is said that he wasn’t very kind to the people who were already there, so there is no reason to celebrate his life, but there is a thrill to stand in the very place he created a lasting achievement.

Casa de Estudillo.  Photo courtesy of IS Architecture.

Old Town is a celebration of the Mexican heritage in San Diego and California more generally.  The site is split between a commercial area with shops and restaurants and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  The latter is in effect an outdoor museum with many of the older buildings restored and retained.  There are a number of historic homes, including the Casa de Estudillo, which was built in 1829 and is made of adobe, one of the oldest such mansions in California.  Others of these restored homes are the Casa de Machado y Silvas from the 1840’s: the Casa de Machado y Stewart, a soldier’s home from 1835 and the Little Adobe Chapel, which was destroyed and then rebuilt in the 1930’s, with many of the interior contents restored.  There are also museums, trolley car rides, a working blacksmith shop and the oldest brick structure in San Diego, the Whaley House, built in 1865 and, so they say, haunted today.

But enough of all this culture.  Let’s have some fun!

Casa de Reyes restaurant.  Photo courtesy of the City of San Diego.

There are lots of restaurants in and around Old Town.  Most of them serve Mexican food, California style.  We’re not quite sure what Cal-Mex is, but it’s different than the Tex-Mex we taste in the rest of the US.  The ownership and names change frequently over the years, but we have gravitated to what is now called the Casa de Reyes.  There’s a large outdoor courtyard, which San Diegan weather enables most of year.  The bar features a large selection of tequilas and you can quaff margheritas the size of bird baths (in somewhat cloudy memory, at least).  Mariachis entertain regularly and there is a nice, non-rowdy party atmosphere at all times.  It’s the kind of place where families get together.

Daytimes are the time to visit the cultural attractions, but we recommend you dine in Old Town in the evening.  You’ll feel like you dropped onto the set of Romancing the Stone.


Conn Creek Winery

In Napa Valley, there are some wineries that are very famous for the quality of the wine they make and sometimes for the wine they used to make.  Conn Creek may not be the most famous name in the valley, but we would say that it is definitely a winery worth visiting, for newbies and experienced tasters as well.

Conn Creek Winery.  Photo courtesy of

There are a number of reasons for saying this.  Conn Creek was established in 1973, prior to the famous Judgment of Paris tasting that established northern California as a winemaking area worthy of international repute.  These pioneering wineries, which include the more famous ones such as Stag’s Leap, Mondavi and Chateau Montelena, are worth knowing if only because of the accumulated expertise that only the decades can bring.

It is also one of the earliest environmentally sustainable wineries.  They proudly assert that Conn Creek is certified as a “Napa Green” winery.  Their website boasts that the original facility was built with 12-inch walls stuffed with 20,000 corks.  (We’re not certain what those corks have to do with sustainability, but it’s an interesting factoid.)

Of course, the primary reason to visit is to taste their wines.  Here Conn Creek’s philosophy of winemaking in Napa Valley comes into play.  For openers, the house specialty is Cabernet Sauvignon, as is true of many wineries in the region.  Conn Creek does grow some of their grapes on their own 2½ acres, which is not a lot.  The rest of their production comes from sourced grapes from everywhere in the valley.  And we do mean everywhere.  In their tasting room you can compare and contrast Cabernet Sauvignons from Diamond Mountain, Stags Leap, Chiles Valley, St. Helena, Calistoga, Spring Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain and Mt. Veeder.  What a tour!

What Conn Creek is proudest of is their premier wine, Anthology.  This is a made from grapes from all over Napa Valley.  Almost every year, it’s a blend, differing each year in the composition.  For the most part, they make a Bordeaux blend, plus or minus one or two of the “official” grapes.  In 2017 and 2018, they made Anthology from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but even that was a blend of AVAs.  Conn Creek tells us that they have returned to blends, but with fewer varietals.

Part of the display of the single vineyard versions of Cabernet Sauvignon

In the tasting room, there is a display explaining the way that Conn Creek approaches winemaking, with soil samples and explanations of the characteristics of the grapes from each vineyard they source from.  Moreover, Conn Creek offers a very interesting course in an area adjoining the tasting room.  They call it “The Barrel Blending Experience” (with a little registered trademark sign).  After explaining and sampling the different single vineyard wines, the participants are given the chance to create their own blends.  For one thing, it creates appreciation of what real winemakers do to get the perfect blend into a bottle.  For another, everyone gets to take home his or her own version of Anthology.

For many years, we drove past Conn Creek as we were going somewhere else along the Silverado Trail or up in the mountains.  Now we often make a point to stop and see what they have been making, and how their wines have evolved over time.

Evaluating Years

Wine snobs are (in)famous for their adulation of certain vintages.  “Ahh, the ’82 Bordeaux” one might croon, while another swoons over 1997 California Cabs.  We plead guilty to some of that, because we often try to buy certain favorite wines in years that are reputed to be top-tier or a millésime, as the French say.

However, we have found that many people we know don’t really care about the year a wine was made.  There is a certain logic to that way of thinking, especially for those who primarily drink wines from California.  The relative equanimity of the climate there, especially compared with wines from areas with more variable weather, such as Burgundy, means that there is less variability in the quality of Californian wines, year over year.

Photo courtesy of Vine Pair.

That is not to say that there aren’t better and worse years in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, for example.  2011 was a stinker, while the following three years were among the best.  For the most part, the distinction is only evident in the pricier premium wines.  If all you want is something to go with a burger and fries in the backyard, buy a good label and don’t worry about which year it was made.

But if you are on a wine tasting trip, it may be interesting to try to evaluate vintages.  Here are a few tips if you want to try.

  • Develop a sensory memory. Yeah, sure, nothing to it.  Some of the greatest experts have trouble with this, so don’t feel too bad if you can’t remember the aroma and taste of the wine you sipped an hour ago, much less days or weeks.  Still, if you know in advance that you will be visiting a winery that you particularly like, open a bottle of that wine and really concentrate on the smell, mouth feel and taste.  Maybe even write down your sensations and then really try to remember when you are tasting other vintages.  Good luck.
  • Taste a vertical. A vertical is a selection of the same wine from different years, often successive years.  This is really the best way to evaluate the differences between years, but is somewhat difficult (or at least expensive) to accomplish.  Many of the better wineries have older bottles, called library wines, available for tasting for a fee.  Lining up a few glasses with the same wine from different years exposes much about the terroir and the winemaker’s art, and helps tasters to develop their knowledge of wine.
  • Make your own vertical. You don’t have travel to a winery to have access to a vertical.  If you belong to a wine club, you will probably receive the same wine from each year’s harvest.  If you put down some of those wines, they’ll be available to open two or three from different years and compare them.  It’s a good idea to do this with some friends, since you don’t want to finish two or three bottles yourself and you don’t want to lose some of your most treasured wines.

All of this is for academic or at least snobbish reasons.  The point of wine tasting is not to parade your expertise but rather to enjoy what’s in the glass in front of you or if you don’t, to know why.  You can look up the consensus opinions on the quality of a certain vintage in a certain locale and adjust your buying – and sipping – accordingly.