As you drive into the town of Béziers in Southwest France, you’ll see signs welcoming you and announcing that you’ve arrived at the “world capital of wine” (capitale mondiale du vin).  Now, this claim may be contested by the people in Bordeaux, Montecino or Napa.  But it is fair to say that there’s a lot of wine made in the area around Béziers, in the heart of the Languedoc region, although even there Narbonne and Montpellier have a claim.

The town certainly has a lot of history.  Researchers say that it has been occupied since 575 BCE.  The Gauls lived there; the Romans conquered it; and it was considered to be a part of Spain until well into the Middle Ages.  In the crusade against a heretic branch of Christianity, the Cathars, it was sacked and nearly destroyed in 1209.  Béziers’ position along the Mediterranean made (and still makes) it a center of trade and so it sprang back to life.

The entrance to the Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire.  The townspeople have decorated Béziers with colorful hanging lampshades.

Visitors today can still detect some of the ravages of that war.  The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire was re-erected afterwards and still dominates Béziers’ skyline.  The entrance faces a pleasant square but most of the building is on top of a cliff and is unreachable.  That’s because the conquerors didn’t trust the people of Béziers and re-built the cathedral to be a fortress if need be.  Fortresses tend to be fairly gloomy inside and this church is no exception, but we recommend a coffee or a glass of that Béziers wine on the square by the cathedral, where you can admire the architecture.

If you’re in the mood to see other churches, we recommend the church of the Madeleine, where the people of Béziers were massacred in 1209.  You can still see some of the scars of the battle on the exterior but the interior has been renovated since then and is more attractive than that of the cathedral.

Assuming that you’re interested in other things than churches and grisly history, such as food and wine, we do have some recommendations.  For one, visit the grand covered market, Les Halles de Béziers.  As a visitor, you may not be able to cook everything, but you can bring home some canned cassoulet or some herbes de Provence.  We always enjoy a little of the region’s succulent fruit that we munch as we go along.

There are wonderful bistros everywhere in Béziers, but the area to the west of Les Halles is packed with them.  Our experience is that it doesn’t matter which one you choose.  They all serve the same local specialties and they’re all good.  And of course you can wash your food down with some Languedoc wine, which is wonderfully inexpensive.

The Vieux Pont and the Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire.  Photo courtesy of the Telegraph.

Be sure to see the Vieux Pont (old bridge) when you leave town.  Erected in the 12th century, it’s a sight in itself.  And from there you can admire the entire town, with the cathedral looming over everything.  We guarantee, you’ll want to take pictures.


What to Serve?

You’ve invited some people over for a meal.  Or maybe you and your significant other are having a romantic supper at home.  Or it’s just an average Tuesday dinner.  The same question arises: What wine are you going to serve?

But wait.  Power Tasting is about visiting wineries and trying their various wines.  What does that have to do with dinner plans?  We think the question of what to serve should be on your mind while you’re out wine tasting.  It’s unlikely that if you buy some of the wine you’re tasting that you’ll ever have the same experience as at a winery.  You’ll be at home and there will be no nice server pouring you a selection of wines and explaining what they’re all about.  You’ll choose a bottle, maybe two, and that’s what you’ll drink.

Photo courtesy of V is for Vino.

So we suggest that when you are in Wine Country that you consider the scenarios in the first paragraph and the decision you’ll have to make.

  • Think about how the wine you’re tasting matches up with the kind of food you like to cook and eat. If you’re a meat and potatoes sort of person, you’ll probably gravitate towards big, powerful reds.  On the other hand, if you eat a lot of fish you’ll probably enjoy tasting white wines.  This isn’t so much about wine pairing as it is about choosing the flights at a winery that will introduce you to the kinds of wine that you might serve at home.
  • You don’t have to impress. We have a tendency, when we are in Wine Country, to taste the finest wines in the area.  We have also wondered what the Mondavis and Rothschilds of the world drink with a burger and fries.  Maybe they don’t eat burgers; worse luck for them.  We do and we bet you do too.  And we don’t drink our best wines when we’re pouring on the ketchup.  So it’s fair to think of what you’d serve at a barbecue and choose wineries to visit that will fit those occasions as well as the steak dinner.
  • Taste – and serve – what you like. If you’re a fan of, say, Beaujolais, and your guests include people who you believe are more wine-knowledgeable than you are, you don’t have to serve an expensive wine that you don’t know anything about.  It’s your dinner in your home, so you can serve what you  In all likelihood, the wine will match up pretty well with the food you will be serving.  Then, when you’re in France go visit Beaujolais and learn just how wide a taste palate you can find there.  And if you’re tasting elsewhere, ask which wines that they make are closest to Beaujolais.
  • Restaurants are different.  When you dine out, you don’t serve a wine; you choose one.  There is a server and if you’re lucky there’s a sommelier who will explain the wine to you before you select it.  More importantly, there will be different meals consumed by each person, so the selection will almost certainly be some sort of

Amateur Winemaking

We like wine; we know a bit about it; and of course we publish Power Tasting.  We’ve had some friends and acquaintances who are aware of our oenological tendencies tell us that they/their neighbor/their father-in-law makes wine at home.  And they always tell us it’s as good as the best from Napa/France/Italy.  There’s no way to put them off by saying, “I’m sure it’s quite good”.  They insist on giving us a bottle to hear our opinion.

Photo courtesy of the San Diego Amateur Winemaking Society.

We suspect they never tasted Petrus and certainly not their home-made wine next to a glass of it.  So we sip what they give us, hoping that it isn’t vinegar, swirl it in our mouths a while and then, trying hard to look earnest, tell them that while theirs is interesting, we prefer to stick with the wines we know.  Notice the absence of any actual opinion.

This experience comes to mind in our wine tasting travels because quite a few wineries offer the experience of making your own wine.  We are aware of several that have similar programs, including Conn Creek and the Wine Foundry in Napa and several places in Texas called Water2Wine. We have tried our hands at blending at Joseph Phelps in Napa Valley, trying to replicate Insignia, their flagship wine. We have concluded that a) we are not very capable winemakers and b) professional winemakers do an awfully good job.

Neither of those points should have come as surprises.  We have no training, no experience and, though we hate to admit it, probably no aptitude for winemaking.  We don’t expect rank amateurs to do our jobs, so why should we be expected to become skilled professionals just because a fine winery has given us some fermented juice to play with.

We have been fortunate enough to spend some time with several real winemakers from wineries we admire and we have great respect for them.  It’s not just that they have skill at blending varietals.  For one thing, they have well-cultivated tastes for wine.  Sure, we do too, but we only taste the finished products.  They can sip a little of this, a bit more of that and figure out what combination will be consistent with the production of years past and will taste good years in the future.

We’re happy to leave our expertise at opening bottles, pouring wine into glasses and having enough insight into wine to distinguish well-made ones from plonk.  At best, we know the difference between good wine and really good wine.  Which brings us back to the wines made at home.  There are home cooks who can make a great, restaurant-quality meal but not hundreds of meals of exactly the same quality every night for years.  The same applies to amateur winemakers.  We’re certain that they enjoy what they’ve made, if only because they get to drink the results of their own handiwork.  We’ll go further and recognize that if they like their own wine, that’s their own business.  But they cannot make great wine, just wine they like.

Having had the chance to make our own wine, we’ve decided to let the professionals do their thing and we’ll do ours: drink it and enjoy it.

Bedell Cellars

A Bordeaux winery founded in 1980 is a newcomer.  In Napa Valley, it would have a heritage but wouldn’t be a pioneer.  But on Long Island’s North Fork, a 1980 winery is positively ancient.  Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue (pronounced KUCH-og) is just such a winery.  It has had two owners, the Bedells (Kip and Susan) who started it and the Lynne family who are still there.

Then and now, Bedell made a number of wines, red, white and rosé.  At the outset, the winery focused on one grape, Merlot, to the extent that Kip Bedell was known as “Mr. Merlot”.  In our earliest forays into Long Island’s new Wine Country, we found Bedell Merlot to be a standout among other wineries trying to do everything for everybody.

Bedell Cellars still bottles Merlot, but today it is a wine, not the wine. The wine that Bedell features most prominently now is Musée, which is a Bordeaux grape blend.  It is unusual in two ways: the most prominent grape is Petit Verdot, which is usually used for blending in France.  And the 2019 bottling does not contain Cabernet Franc, which many (us included) find to be the grape most suited to the North Fork’s terroir.

 The entrance to the Bedell winery.

There are a number of reasons to spend time at Bedell when visiting the North Fork.  Not the least is the look of the place, both inside and out.  There is a New England-y quality to the exterior of the winery buildings.  Since the North Fork was settled by émigré Puritans in the 1700’s, the architecture is an homage to local history.  White clapboard and little steeples lead one to expect whalers to be coming home at any minute.  These days, especially in the summer months, it is far more likely that it will be tourists who are coming.

 Bedell’s tasting room.

The décor of the tasting room belies the rustic sense of the exterior.  It’s modern, metal and high-tech, all rather dramatic.  The servers work behind the bar and interact with visitors languidly on cool, early April days and a bit frantically at the height of the summer.  We do recommend a visit to Bedell to get a sense of where the North Fork’s wines have come from.  But we further recommend that you do so on a day other than a high-season weekend.

In addition to the tourist hordes, you are likely to find some distractions at Bedell.  They often present musical acts, for one thing, and in the summer youmight find yourself surrounded by a lot of surprisingly well-dressed people.  They are probably there for a wedding.  Winery nuptials are becoming quite the thing on the North Fork, and the beauty of Bedell’s vineyards, grounds and architecture attract quite a few.

We view marriage quite favorably and are happy to see people getting hitched in such lovely surroundings.  But the business of winery-as-a-backdrop may have an effect on the business of making and selling wine.  It’s enough that winemaking is part farming, part art and part industry.  Adding ceremonies as a fourth part of the financial equation can alter a winemaker’s perspective, as well as that of wine tasters.  We hope that Bedell keeps its eye on the ball…or at least on the grape.