Pay Attention to Farming

Essentially, wine tasting is all about what’s in the glass, plus the amenities and architecture of the wineries themselves.  But it’s also about the factory that is often found right behind the tasting room.  And it’s about the farms (we call them vineyards, of course) that produce the grapes that ultimately wind up in that glass.

Wineries offer tours of their industrial facilities and occasionally take visitors into the vineyards, but they do not emphasize the farming aspect of wine.  In some part that’s because many wineries source their grapes so the farming is someone else’s job.  But more so, it’s because there really isn’t anything to see, except perhaps at harvest time, when the best a visitor can do is stay out of the way of the workers.

Photo courtesy of Wine Australia

But when someone is visiting a winery, especially one with vines right outside the window, it’s a good idea to learn a bit – maybe only a bit – about its farming practices.  Here are a few things to think about.

  • What accommodations does the winery make for their specific micro-climate? We remember being at a renowned Bordeaux château and asking why their wines were so much more expensive (and better) than the one that adjoined their property.  The answer was, “Do you see that little hill between the vineyards?  We get the morning sun and they don’t.”  A few questions about the siting and orientation of the vines can provide a lot of insight as to why one particular wine tastes the way it does.
  • What is the winery doing about climate change and sustainability. Of course, everyone is concerned about the environment.  Noticeably hotter summers and wetter winters are challenging winemakers to find year-to-year consistency in the wines they produce.  Even more, these conditions are making it increasingly difficult for vineyard managers to grow the same amount of grapes in the same varietals with the same quality every year.  As a visitor and wine lover, we think you’d like to know what they’re doing about it.
  • Along the same lines, how do they use water? It seems that wine growing regions are experiencing either drought or floods.  The way in which they use water – or protect themselves against it – are important factors in the quality of the wines you taste.  Despite perennial panic about running out of water, California winemakers did pretty well during the drought years, but how long can this go on?  Dry farming works in some climates, but others are virtual deserts and need irrigation.  It’s worth asking how they do it.
  • How do they deal with cool springs or excessively hot summers? You may know that the pruning and trellising practices of various vineyard managers differ.  It’s interesting to find out how each winery’s approach leads to what winds up in the glass.  An average server may not know, but if the winemaker or some farmhands are around, they can explain it.  Even if it all seems a bit geeky for the average taster, it’s worthwhile to know what’s going on in the fields.

Seated Tastings – Plusses and Minuses

In the not very distant past, a typical wine tasting would involve entering a tasting room, finding a space at the bar, getting the server’s attention and sampling a few wines as slowly or as quickly as one pleased.  The server would explain what each wine was, very briefly on busy days, with more detail and conversation on slower ones.  The trend in wineries these days, particularly but not exclusively in Napa Valley, is to take a seat at a table (by appointment, if you please) and be served a selection of wines by someone who acts more like a waiter than a bartender.

Photo courtesy of Medlock Ames.

In some ways, we like this experience, but in others we miss the way things used to be.

Beginning with the upside, a seated tasting more closely matches the way you would enjoy these wines in your own home.  You might stand up and sip some Chardonnay at a party or a barbecue, but the wine would not be the center of attention, nor would the wines in question be of the quality you expect at a wine tasting.  Especially if the server offers you something to eat, even a few crackers, you get a better sense of how you would enjoy each wine were you to purchase some.

Almost without exception, the interaction with the servers is cordial and as informative as the server’s knowledge can make it.  That’s because they aren’t being pulled from one visitor to the other, trying to serve as many people in as short a time as possible.  In the worst days of the pandemic, wineries were forced to seat their customers at widely spaced tables.  Finding employees was more difficult as well.  Both these trends are still apparent now that Covid has ebbed.  As a result, with seated tastings, servers have more time, less pressure and can give their guests more attention.

It must be said that the facilities, in or out of doors, are more attractive.  Visitors can look around rather than stand at the bar facing the scurrying servers.

However, there are some negatives.  At a bar, if you were served a wine you don’t especially care for, you could pour it out at strategically placed buckets and move on to the next wine.  At a table, you may have to ask for a bucket and then wait your turn for the next wine to be served.  (A few wineries, such as Duckhorn and Black Stallion, both in Napa Valley, serve the entire flight at one time, so visitors can drink at their own pace.)

Yes, you have more of an opportunity to speak with the servers.  What you want from them is their knowledge of wine in general and that winery’s products in particular.  But you didn’t come there to hear their life stories, which teams they root for and where their kids are going to school.  (Honest, these have happened to us.)  One of the big plusses of seated tastings is having the chances to sip at your leisure.  Having some stranger dominate your time eliminates that advantage.

Finally, seated tastings take more time, an hour at a minimum but often more.  This significantly reduces the number of wineries anyone can visit in a day.  That’s a plus for sobriety, but for those who sip and pour, as we do, it’s not so positive.  And we find that in sitting and waiting for our servers, we drink more of what’s in front of us than we would have otherwise.

The Silverado Trail

Route 29 is the main drag of Napa Valley’s portion of Wine Country.  Parallel to it and a few miles to the northeast is the “other” road, the Silverado Trail.  There are plenty of wineries to visit along the Silverado Trail, many of which are counted among the best in the valley and some among the best in the world.  But there are no restaurants nor any place even to buy a sandwich.  There’s no train track carrying diners nor is there as much traffic, although it gets a little busier at what passes for rush hour in Napa Valley.

Photo courtesy of Great Runs.

The Silverado Trail begins in the town of Napa, where it is mostly residential and becomes of interest to wine tasters only when it crosses over Trancas Street.  At that point, for about four miles, the Oak Knoll AVA is on your left, while the wineries on the right exist in a sort of limbo, identified only as Napa.  Since several of the wineries on that side are quite renowned, such as Darioush and Signorello (still rebuilding after the 2017 fire), it doesn’t seem quite fair.

The Trail then passes through the famed Stags Leap AVA (on both sides of the street), where it would be easy to spend a day or two just going from winery to winery.  You had better like Cabernet Sauvignon there, because that’s what this area produces in great quantity.  Because of the proximity of the wineries and the generally flat lay of the land, there are quite a few visitors who bicycle this part of the Silverado Trail for their tasting experiences.

The Yountville AVA hosts the Silverado Trail for just a short distance with only one winery of note, before the road enters Oakville.  There are several wineries there, but they are well separated from each other.  The same may be said for the stretch in the Rutherford AVA.

The Silverado Trail is more extended in the St. Helena AVA, where the distance to Route 29 narrows.  The AVA with the longest section of the Trail is Calistoga, where the road finally peters out.

Photo courtesy of Destination 360.

This abbreviated tour belies the attraction of the Silverado Trail.  It runs along the foot of the Vaca mountains and has far fewer wineries to visit than Route 29 or the cross roads between the two.  As a result, the wide expanses of greenery, sometimes vineyards and other times just mountainsides, make it a pleasure to drive along (or to bike, so they tell us).  There are few stop lights from one end to the other.  The absence of significant traffic enables you to just motor along and enjoy it all without stopping and starting all the time.  And you can even make a left turn if you have to.

If we are going somewhere on Route 29, we generally use the Silverado Trail to drive north-south and then cross over when we near our destination.  It is both easier on the eyes and on the nerves.

Stags’ Leap Winery

There are a number of reasons to enjoy a wine tasting visit to Stags’ Leap Winery ( history, architecture, vistas, beauty and of course the wines.  The tasting “room” is actually a house, more of a mansion that has been lovingly restored to its condition around the turn of the previous century.  It has been the home of rich people, a resort hotel, a speakeasy, a home to squatters and, finally, a commercial winery.

You learn all the details and get to see much of the building as a part of what they call a Manor House Experience.  You can also taste the wines without the tour, but we highly recommend being shown around.  As you enter the property, you pass through an arcade of trees and see vineyards that date to the 1880’s.  You climb a hill to the parking lot and view across the estate, with more vineyards below.  You will notice magnificent gardens everywhere around you and then you’ll see this Victorian mansion, made of stone with a grand veranda running along one side.
When you step inside, the room you enter is resplendent of early 20th century design, somewhere between Gatsby and your (rich) grandmother.  The chandelier made of stags’ horns certainly catches the eye, as do all the burnished wood accoutrements.  You don’t have to whisper, but you do feel as though you ought to.

A tour guide takes you through the house, outbuildings and gardens, offering tastings of Stags’ Leaps’ lighter wines as you go.  You wind up in an equally impressive dining room with the crest of the winery in stained glass.  Here you sit and are served their more well-known wines.  Since this is Napa Valley they serve a Cabernet Sauvignon, but interestingly, this is not Stag Leaps’ flagship wine.  They are best known for Petite Sirah, both in the more widely known white label with a leaping stag and their black label premium bottling.  It is the latter, more interesting wine that they serve on the tour.

The overall impression you get from a visit to Stags’ Leap is of old-money luxury.  In fact you learn during the tour that there was once a lot of money but it ran out and was only restored to its former glory in the 1980’s.  It has been kept up by the current owner, Treasury Wine Cellars.  What you see is gracious, as are the guides, and the wines project a full-bodied savor that may not be quite as fashionable as it once was but echoes what Napa Valley has always been.  In fact, that may be said about the visit as a whole.

We cannot fail to relate the history of the apostrophe.  The AVA is Stags Leap, with no apostrophe at all.  It merely says that stags do leap.  Down the road is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (a leap by one stag).  This winery is Stags’ Leap (the leap of many stags).  Is that clear?  Actually, no it isn’t and it was the subject of lawsuits for quite a few years.  The guide tells the story with a little chuckle, but it’s clear that there are still some bruises felt after all this time.