“I Can’t Taste That”

The tasting notes for one of our favorite Pinot Noirs describe what’s in the bottle as:

“Subtle and nuanced, this wine unfolds with layers of perfumed red berries and sweet baking spice. Delicate hints of cinnamon, clove, and cedar, dance from the glass, a nod to the well-integrated oak. The flavors unfurl with juicy red cherry and pomegranate, alongside hints of orange pekoe tea, hibiscus flower, and pink peppercorn.”

Photo courtesy of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

We’ve drunk that wine many times, and to be honest, never once gave a thought to baking spice, pomegranate or pink peppercorns.  In fact, we don’t believe we’ve ever thought of pink peppercorn after tasting any wine.

So we suggest that when you’re out winetasting and the server mentions road tar and alfalfa, take it with a bit of…well, salt would be bad idea, but don’t worry if you can’t recognize anything you were told.  Which is not to say that you shouldn’t consider the aromas and tastes that come from your glass.

  • Remember, it’s your mouth. You can’t be wrong.  Actually, you can if you’re tasting some of the flavors only found in red wines when you’re sipping a white, or vice-versa.  So if you think you’re tasting, say, dark fruits or tobacco in a Sauvignon Blanc, you either have a cold or you’re really off base.  But if you close your eyes and let smell and taste memories take over, you’ll be correct, on your own terms.
  • Listen to others. Of course, other people around you have their own memories.  If you’re tasting cherries and someone else says raspberries, they’re both red fruit, so maybe you’ll get a hint of raspberries, too.  But what if he says he can detect green peppers.  That’s often a sign of underripe grapes and you may not have picked up on that taste, but immediately recognize it when it’s pointed out to you.
  • In addition, what you’re tasting is influenced by many factors besides the wine. You will taste different things when you’re pairing a wine with a meal than you do in a tasting room.  Your mood will affect your tasting abilities.  So will your health.  Fatigue, time of day, and the perfume some thoughtless visitor is wearing at the next table all have an effect.
  • Not everyone can taste everything. It’s just a biological fact that some people have taste receptors for certain chemicals in specific wines and others don’t.  It is often written that Syrah has a definite taste of white pepper.  That may be so, but not for us.  It seems that a chemical called rotundone is found in white pepper and in low concentrations in Syrah grapes.  If you don’t have the capability to taste just a bit of rotundone, you won’t find it in your wine glass.
  • Don’t fake it. If the “official” description says a wine tastes of honeysuckle and you can’t find that, but do taste pineapple, stick by your guns.  Maybe honeysuckle was dominant at the time the description was written but it has faded now, with pineapple coming out as the wine aged.  There’s no sense convincing yourself that you taste something you don’t, just to get along by going along.

Odette Estate Winery

It’s not usually important to know who the owners of a winery are before tasting there.  Odette is unusual in that regard, in that it is owned by Gavin Newsom (yes, that Gavin Newsom), Gordon Getty (yes, those Gettys) and John Conover, who actually manages the winery.  If the names Newsom and Getty sound familiar to wine lovers, that’s because they also founded the Plumpjack and Cade wineries, up on Napa’s Howell Mountain.

All this is relevant, because if you like Plumpjack and Cade, you’ll most likely enjoy the wines from Odette as well.  We can say this because we were offered a comparison tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from the three vineyards, and Odette certainly held its own.

Photo courtesy of The Napa Wine Project.

Note that none of the owners are named Odette, nor to our knowledge are their wives.  The name of the winery is sort of an inside joke.  Plumpjack was a nickname in some of Shakespeare’s plays for John Falstaff, the bibulous, rotund rake who nearly leads Henry V to ruin.  His girlfriend was named Odette.  On top of that, Odette is the romantic heroine in the ballet Swan Lake.  And Odette Kahn was one of the judges in the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting that established California’s winemaking prowess.  This triple meaning is reinforced by  modernistic sculptures in their vineyards, which is reproduced on their labels.

The Odette winery.  Photo courtesy of 7×7.

For the visitor to Odette, there is no grand palace on the premises, just a rather simple white structure with an attractive steeple on top.  The interior won’t blow anyone away, either.  The greatest attraction is the sight of the winery in the midst of a seemingly endless vineyard, nestled below the hills in the Stags Leap sector.  It harkens back to another era in Napa Valley, where the lure was the wine and the scenery, not the massiveness of the architecture.  Visitors are meant to taste wines on a covered patio in view of the vines.

The wines on offer are primarily Napa Valley’s most common varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  There’s also a less common Petite Sirah, which they market under the Adaptation label.  These are all quite powerful wines, very much an expression of what Napa Valley is famous for.  As mentioned, we were able to compare all three of their labels.  In advance, we expected to prefer the wine made from mountain fruit, but Odette and Plumpjack, from the valley floor, proved to be our favorites.

Jewelry for sale at Odette.

We don’t often mention shopping in Power Tasting’s reviews, since most of what we find are either overpriced fashion items or the usual collection of refrigerator magnets and coasters, also overpriced.  But Odette has a rather interesting display of handmade jewelry that is a notable exception to the rule and is worth mentioning.  We’re sure that Falstaff’s girlfriend would be pleased to wear some of the pieces for sale.

We’re not certain that the wines from all three properties are offered all the time.  Assuming that they are, a visit to Odette provides an interesting way to enjoy the wines of the Plumpjack group at one sitting.


The Middle Ages always had an attraction for us when we were kids.  Knights, damsels in distress, jousts and big feasts in castles halls just seemed so wondrous.  Robin Hood, El Cid, and Joan of Arc were our heroes and the Sherriff of Nottingham was the evil villain.  Later in life, Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (both the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh versions) thrilled us yet again.  If you were anything like us, you ought to take a trip to Carcassonne when you’re wine tasting in southwest France.

Carcassonne viewed from afar.  Photo courtesy of European Waterways.

As you drive up to the town, you’ll see this magnificent walled city on a hilltop.  There is a modern-day town surrounding the castle, but it’s of no particular interest.  It’s the imagery of battles and courtly love that will rush back into your mind as soon as you see Carcassonne.  And it’s real.

Well, almost real.  There was a walled town there in the Middle Ages and it did figure in some significant battles, particularly in the Albigensian Crusade, that pitted the Papacy versus the Cathars.  (The Pope won.)  But by the early 1800’s, the town and its castle had fallen into disrepair and was going to be torn down.

Then along came Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  He was a French architect, a visionary and someone who must have had the same childhood fantasies we did.  He set about restoring great medieval buildings, not least of which was the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  When he turned his attention to Carcassonne, he took what was still a military stronghold and turned it into a Middle Ages wonderland.

The lovingly restored Basilique de St-Nazaire.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

For today’s visitor, there’s no reason to concern yourself that Viollet-le-Duc wasn’t exactly archeologically correct in restoring Carcassonne.  If what we see today isn’t exactly as it was, it is what it should have been.  Soaring walls, towers with arrow slits for the archers, tessellated ramparts, inns (well, they’re really restaurants) where you can quaff your ale (or enjoy a glass of wine).  They’re all there in Carcassonne.

Entry to the old town is free, but parking isn’t.  And if you get there at any reasonable hour, you’ll find the nearest empty lots are quite a walk away.  Of course, that gives you the chance to approach the great walls and turrets slowly and take them in at leisure.  Once inside, you’ll find a whole town’s worth of genuine medieval buildings, buffed up and gleaming.  Unfortunately, you’ll also find the usual run of shops selling knickknacks, tee shirts and junk.  But you’ll also encounter bookstores with a considerable collection of material on the Middle Ages and the events that have occurred around Carcassonne.  Many are in French, but enough are translated to keep you interested.

You can walk the walls of Carcassonne.

We recommend that you pay the fee to tour the walls around the city.  It’s not too hard to imagine hordes of English troops approaching from afar and the sturdy Carcassonais defending their fortifications.  By the way, those enemy troops might also have been French, because Carcassonne was part of Spain in medieval times.  You should also see the Basilique de St- Nazaire, begun in the 11th Century.  It’s fine gothic architecture, suitably embellished by Viollet-le-Duc.

If you ever dreamed over Prince Valiant on a Sunday morning, you’ll love Carcassonne.



Enoteca Nibbi

Enotecas are a distinctly Italian combination of wine bar, wine store and snack bar.  Like wine bars around the world, they’re places to relax, sip some wine, people watch and engage in a little conversation (much easier to talk with others, of course, if you speak Italian).

Some Italian enotecas are raffish and frequented primarily by locals.  Others are in areas where they are sure to have tourists dropping by as well.  Nibbi belongs in the latter category.  It’s located just off the famed Via Veneto, the hillside roadway in Rome that has long been a byword for moneyed elegance.  The area near Nibbi contains posh hotels, excellent restaurants and the American Embassy.  So while the hoi polloi might find their way to Nibbi, you’re more likely to find a more refined crowd.

It’s not that you need to be rich to go there.  There are about 20 wines to choose from, including reds and whites from around Italy, plus rosés and bubblies.  Beer and aperitifs are also served.  The pours are generous and the prices are amazingly inexpensive.  Glasses of most of their wines run between six and nine euros.  We’ve seen prices two to three times that cost back home.

The wines available by the glass are also available by the bottle, to be consumed on-site or taken home.  The wines by the glass may not always be the greatest exemplars of their vintages, but they’re not plonk either.  You can have a great tour of Italian vineyards without leaving your seat.

The food menu runs to potato chips, olives, salads, sandwiches and platters of slices salumi and cheeses.  All seemed very appetizing as they were served to other parties.  We always stopped at Nibbi for a pre-prandial glass or two before proceeding to the local restaurants, so we never tried their food.

The interior of the enoteca is quite nicely appointed, more like the American equivalent of a cocktail lounge than a bar.

But the place to sit is outside, especially in nice weather, which in Rome seems to have at least ten months a year.  There’s always a crowd gathering in front of nearly all enotecas, but Nibbi also offers a glassed “shed” where there always seems something going on.  We’ve seen large parties, with bottles and platters seeming to arrive every ten minutes.  There was a fellow on his PC writing what must have been the Great Italian Novel, made up of equal parts of inspiration, wine and cigarettes.  And there was a woman enjoying a glass of wine by herself without getting hassled (try that in New York!).

The complete name of this enoteca is Bar Enoteca Nibbi dal 1936, meaning that actual fascists and their followers must have drunk there back in the early days.  As with almost everywhere in contemporary Europe, it’s hard – at least for visitors – to conceptualize the destruction and despair of war in these lovely sites.  So, we recommend, don’t do more than give momentary thought to the past, drink up and live for today and tomorrow.  Nibbi certainly provides a pleasant venue for such enjoyment.