Without Reservations?

If you’ve decided to go wine tasting in Napa Valley, you’d better make advance reservations and be prepared for an experience lasting at least an hour.  [This is largely true for Sonoma County as well, but let’s keep the focus on Napa Valley.]  You’ll sit at a table and be served one wine after the other, usually four or five, often with something a little special added in, especially if you express an interest in a particular grape or a style.  Just keep in mind that the server will bring you the next wine to taste whenever he is available and after serving other customers.

Photo courtesy of Spring Valley Vineyard.

The above is good advice but it’s not entirely true.

  • Walk-ins are still available. It helps, we’ve found, if you appear a bit abashed, saying, “Gee, we don’t have a reservation, but do you think you can take us without one?”  If the tasting room (or more likely, in good weather, the tasting patio) isn’t busy, they’ll take you.  Groups of two will be taken, but larger than that and you’re less likely to be seated.
  • The issue is labor shortages. We have been told that the reason for the “by appointment only” policies is that qualified tasting room staff are hard to find in the years after the end of the acute phase of the pandemic.  If the schedule for the day is known in advance, they can staff appropriately.  However, although most wineries won’t admit it, they often have staffed up for some walk-ins.
  • It’s easier at the lesser-known wineries. The biggest labels, which have historically drawn the most visitors, are the most likely to enforce their reservation systems.  You can tell by checking their web sites.  If they state that they have a strict reservations-only policy, they probably mean it.  Many of the wineries that aren’t household names are eager to please and attract new customers.  And quite often we’ve found that there’s little or no sacrifice in the quality of the wines we have tasted by sticking with the smaller wineries.
  • It’s also easier at the less busy times of day. You are more likely to find availability if you arrive just as the tasting rooms open their doors or an hour before they close them.  The morning is better.  The servers are more chipper and they’re not in such a rush to get home.
  • And you have a better chance on weekdays. Naturally, wineries are busier on weekends, just as they were before the pandemic.  But the reservation-only regimes have eliminated the wild party mob scenes of yesteryear, and that’s not bad at all.
  • You may not get prime seating. If it’s a beautiful day and you want to sit on the veranda, you may find that you can only be accommodated inside.  The wine tastes exactly the same and since you didn’t make an appointment, you have no right to complain.
  • Maybe ask for all your wines to be poured at the same time. If you are a fan of the extended tasting experience that is the rule in Napa Valley today, by all means let them serve you one wine at a time and plan to sit there for more than an hour.  But if you need a lunch break or have an appointment at another winery, you can save some time and reduce the irrelevant patter by having all four or five wines poured at once.

Gott’s Roadside, St. Helena

Power Tasting is not in the business of restaurant reviews, so this is not a restaurant review.  Yes, Gott’s Roadside is a restaurant but in its way it’s a great deal more.  It is definitely a place to visit if you are going wine tasting in the northern end of Napa Valley.  Gott’s is an institution.  Now, an institution might seem a bit stuffy, but this one definitely is not.

As you drive along Route 29 into St. Helena, you can’t miss it there on your left.  It’s a big white building with lots of parking and seating all around it.  There’s quite a history to go with it.  Originally, it was known as Taylor’s Refresher, established in 1949 by Lloyd Taylor.  At that time, Napa Valley was mostly planted with fruit trees not grape vines, and the clientele must have been largely farmhands and truckers.  It was an unapologetic burger joint that, as we remember it, was a place to get a quick meal but not a destination.

In 1999, Mr. Taylor’s heirs sold the restaurant to the brothers Duncan and Joel Gott.  Together, they were entrepreneurs; Joel was an is a winemaker as well as a restauranteur.  (Duncan has since passed away.)  They kept the name, Taylor’s Refresher, until 2010 when they changed it to the current name.  They also significantly expanded the place.  The Taylor family was a bit upset that their name was being lost, so it seems that the settlement was to change the name but keep the old sign.

Gott’s is still a burger joint, but in keeping with “Napa Style”, it’s somewhat fancier than that.  The beef is Niman Ranch.  There are salads, tacos and sandwiches as well; we have no idea how they taste because we’ve only ever ordered hamburgers.  And what kind of burger joint has a wine list?  For some legal reasons, Joel Gott’s wines aren’t served there anymore.

Part of the reason for eating at Gott’s Roadside is to be able to say you’ve eaten at Gott’s.  It’s the same reason people have their pictures taken in front of the Eiffel Tower – to prove they’ve been there.  There are some excellent restaurants just up the road in St. Helena, but none of them have the retro cachet of Gott’s.  You’ll be able to say “yes” when friends ask, “Did you have lunch at that famous burger place?  What’s it called again?”

Another reason, a better one in addition to the food, is to partake in a tradition with all the other folks dining there.  Part of the seating area is under canopies next to the parking lot and there is also a grassy picnic area where families gather; kids run around; and there’s a general sense of fun.  Just eating there makes you feel like you’re a part of Napa Valley, not just visiting it.

There are now Gott’s establishments in other locations.  Don’t be fooled.  They’re just restaurants, not pieces of Napa Valley history.


Black Stallion Estate Winery

We first encountered Black Stallion (https://www.blackstallionwinery.com/) about a decade ago.  All that stuck in our minds since then was the large statue of a horse and the fact that they were emphasizing the food they served then more than the wine.  We are happy to report that the statue is still there; the facility has been greatly expanded and improved and that we will now remember the wines they serve.

Before discussing the wine tasting experience at Black Stallion, it’s worthwhile explaining a bit of the back story.  The winery is owned by the Indelicato family, now in its fourth generation in America.  Gaspare Indelicato arrived in 1924, planted a vineyard and expanded his holdings so that the company named for him today owns many wineries, the best known of which is Coppola.  Now, about that horse: The land on which the winery sits was previously an equestrian academy.  Situated in the Oak Knoll AVA, the land is better used today for wine than horses, so we believe.  All that’s left is the statue, which they call Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great.  Great horse, great wines – get it?

We did not realize, on our previous visit, that the winery had just been erected and wasn’t yet finished.  The tasting room was long and narrow, had a bar and some outdoor seating.  The bar is still there, but is no longer used in this era of seated tastings.  The tasting area is in a large, canopied patio furnished with low tables and comfortable chairs, from which you can see vineyards and olive trees.  It’s the patio you wished you had, times thirty.  That’s the impression that Black Stallion wants to give, that you are at home, relaxing with some fine wines.  We felt welcome the moment we sat down.

We were offered a choice of four tasting flights, running from $40 to $80 for the Prestige Tasting of their better wines.  In the latter flight, two wines were a mini-vertical of the 2014 and 2018 Barrel Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons.  There were also a Cabernet Sauvignon called Gaspare, named for Grandpa, and a Bordeaux blend that they call Transcendent.  We expressed interest in the Tempranillo and the Pinot Noir from other lists, and so were given tastes of these as well.  Power Tasting does not review wines, but suffice it to say that these wines pleased us much more than those we can (barely) remember from a decade ago.

The educational vineyard at Black Stallion.

Alongside the tasting patio, Black Stallion has planted a micro-vineyard with vines of all the grapes they use in their wines.  It’s there for educational purposes and adds a serious vibe to the comfortable setting.  We can’t resist relating the comments of one patron who clearly needs some wine education.  “Oh, Malbec is a grape, too.  I thought it was a brand.  And the grapes all come from France!”  There is another garden which they call the “insectory”, where they raise plants that attract birds and bugs that are beneficial to grape vines.  This is further evidence of Black Stallion’s commitment to informative wine tasting.

One of the pleasures of wine tasting travels is the opportunity to discover new experiences.  In the case of Black Stallion, the revisit was just such a discovery.

Napa Valley Tasting – A Post-Pandemic Status Report

Less than four years ago, Power Tasting issued a status report on wine tasting in Napa Valley.  Then the pandemic occurred and turned everything topsy-turvy.  Some things remain the same; others the same, but more so; and some things are transformed.

The view of Robert Mondavi’s vines and the Mayacamas Mountains, as seen from under umbrellas at a tasting.

What has not changed and may never change is the beauty of Napa Valley.  Especially in 2023, following the incredibly rainy winter that occurred there, the hillsides are greener and the vineyards seem to sparkle just a bit more than we remember.  Just driving around fills our hearts with joy.

Some old favorite restaurants have closed and others have taken their places.  Such is the way of the world, though the pandemic might have sped things up a bit.  Fear not, there are plenty of places to eat.  It seems to us that Napa Town has more, and more varied, eateries.  There are surely more in-town tasting rooms there, as well.

The fees for tastings have increased greatly, while those for reserve tastings have particularly skyrocketed.  In 2019, we were appalled at the prices.  Now we are simply flabbergasted.  On average the cost seems to have doubled, with some reserve tastings costing $125 per person or more.

The view during a veranda tasting at Beringer.

On the other hand, it seems that visitors get more for their money.  With some very limited exceptions, standing at a bar is a thing of the past.  (It used to be nice to be able to stop at a winery, walk to the bar and taste their “basic” wines, while paying a courtesy fee for that.  For those who still enjoy that mode of tasting, bellying up to the bar is still possible at some in-town tasting rooms.)  All other tastings are seated, with a dedicated server pouring wine for you and explaining what you need to know about what you’re tasting.  The pours are heavier and time goes more slowly.  Nearly all tastings last for an hour; some go on for a half hour longer.  It depends on the server and even more so on the vibe that the winery is trying to project.

For example, Domaine Carneros would like you to believe that you are in a bistro in a French village (with a château, of course).  Beringer would like to evoke the refined elegance of another era.  At Robert Mondavi (at least for the club member tasting that we indulged in) the servers sit down and chat with you, as though you were sitting with friends (that you did not know you had) in an unbelievably beautiful back yard.

We found that even though we were able to partake in fewer tastings, not more than three in a day, we were drinking more.  We used to take a sip or two and pour out the rest.  Now, while we waited for our server to bring the next wine, we were more likely to see the bottom of the prior glass.

The prices for the best wines at each winery have also escalated.  The very top wineries, the ones that habitually are found at the top of the reviews, were and are expensive, but their prices haven’t changed much.  The cost of a bottle of the top wine at less well-known wineries has reached the same stratospheric levels as their better known rivals.  We’ll leave it to others to judge the comparative quality of the wines, but it’s fair to say that we were shocked by some of the price tags.

Napa Valley will be America’s premier winemaking region, at least for Cabernet Sauvignon, for quite some while.  But we’re not at all sure that it’s still the best wine tasting destination – at the price – for the average wine enthusiast.

Editorial: Napa Valley Wine Tasting for the Many or the Few?

There was a time, in what now seems like the distant past, that going wine tasting was essentially free.  There was no charge for sips of wine served in glasses the size of egg cups.  And the only place that anyone had ever heard of to taste wine in the United States was Napa Valley.

There never was any reason why the wineries should have given away their product, but they considered it to be marketing.  With the sales of bottles to some of the tasters (either in appreciation of the wine or guilt over taking something for nothing), it must have been close to break-even.  In recent decades, wine tasting has become an activity that attracts hordes of adult tourists and it has become normal for wineries to charge for tastings.  In many cases the cost of a regular tasting was nominal and reserve tastings cost somewhat more.

The past few years have seen a series of crises in Napa Valley.  The greatest calamity, of course, was the Covid pandemic that has taken more than a million lives in the United States.  It closed wineries for tasting and when restrictions were lifted, for a time only outdoor seated tastings were permitted.  Then there were the terrible fires in 2020 that wiped out a year’s worth of grapes – and the resulting revenue – for many producers.  Finally, an inflationary surge sent the prices for fuel and equipment higher.  The increased costs, plus making up for the lost harvest, have been passed along to consumers in the cost of wine and of tastings.

The result has been tasting fees that make visiting some of the better-known wineries impractical for a wide swath of wine enthusiasts.  No matter how gracious the service, the quality of the wines or the overall entertainment value, a fee of $100 or more is going to be prohibitive for many visitors.  Only the well-heeled need apply.

In the short term, this may enable the wineries to bring in more revenue, while managing their labor costs.  But over the longer term, many young people – tomorrow’s best customers – will be driven away.  They may head for other venues or other drinks; there is no shortage of bars and microbreweries in California or elsewhere.  This trend will also lead, over time, to reduced sales in the stores and in the bars.

We at Power Tasting urge the winery owners to create programs for those who would like to learn about wine but cannot afford the high process in Napa Valley.  This might take the form of discounts, reduced prices at slower periods or outreach to populations that are not known for their wealth.  It’s good business and it’s only fair.