Choosing Where to Go

Sometimes your destination for wine tasting is chosen for you.  If you have a business trip to San Francisco, you may want to add on a day or two of visiting wineries.  You’re most likely to decide to go to Napa Valley or Sonoma County, if only because they are the closest.  Similarly, if you are just looking for a pleasant day in the country – with wine of course – you’ll drive to the winemaking area nearest your home.  So, for example, we New Yorkers head out to Long Island’s North Fork.

But sometimes, your objective is to take a wine tasting trip, without a particular destination in mind.  How do you select the region of Wine Country to visit?

Tuscany in September.

  • Is wine tasting the only objective?  If it is, then you want to go to an area that has many vineyards open to the public, where the quality is well known and accommodations are easy to find.  Once again, NapaNoma suggests itself, but so does Bordeaux or Tuscany or the Rioja.  That’s different than a Paris vacation with a day out in Champagne or the Loire Valley.  If everyone in your party loves wine, the first option makes some sense.  But if you have teetotalers or teenagers with you, maybe you should only inflict wine on them for a day.
  • Would you prefer a new experience or would you like to re-visit favorite places?  We can never get too much of wineries in some of our favorite valleys, Napa and the Southern Rhône.  We go back as often as we can, given available time and budget.  But California’s Central Coast or the Northern Rhône, where we have not travelled to as frequently, also have their allure.  And we’ve not yet tasted wine in Switzerland’s Dôle or Austria’s Burgenland.  Maybe this upcoming trip is when someday becomes now.

Carneros, on the Napa County side.

  • What kind of wine would you like to try for several days in a row?  We appreciate a cold glass of Gewürztraminer on a hot summer day, but we’re not up for a week of it.  So while we have tasted wines in Alsace, it was only briefly.  At the other extreme, maybe the 16% alcoholic wines of Paso Robles are too much for you this time around.  Ah, yes, Pinot Noir would be perfect!  Now you only have to choose among Burgundy, Carneros, Los Olivos and Santa Barbara, to name a few possibilities.
  • When do you want to go?  Power Tasting has long recommended that you avoid the most popular destinations on weekends.  But some of the best wineries in certain regions are only open Thursdays through Sundays.  For instance, we have experienced this in Paso Robles and the Santa Rita Hills.  Time of year also matters.  If all you’re interested in is the wines, then there’s no problem making a trip in the depths of winter.  Many California wineries release their wines in February, so that might attract you.  But if you want to see the vines with dense coverage, you need to go in the summer.  And if you want to see the harvest, you have to be in Wine Country between August and October.  (Unless you want to go to the southern hemisphere, when February through April is the right time for you.)

Right Place, Wrong Grape

They grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.  They grow Tempranillo in the Rioja.  There’s Chardonnay in Burgundy and Malbec in Argentina.  But let’s keep it domestic.  Napa Valley has Cabernet Sauvignon; Pinot Noir is grown in the area around Santa Barbara; and Zinfandel is the hot grape in Dry Creek Valley.  There are reasons for these grapes in these locations, including terroir, history and farming techniques.

Pinot Noir from Paso Robles.  Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Daily News.

But there are some times in your wine tasting travels when you might encounter grapes growing in places where they aren’t expected.  For example, Pinot Noir usually grows best in a cool, moist climate.  But there are quite a few wines made from that grape that can be found in the hot, dry region around Paso Robles.  And in Champagne, famed for sparkling white wines, you can find Bouzy red wine.

So if in your travels you should come across wines made from grapes that shouldn’t be there, what should you do?

  • Does it make sense to try these wines? Well, yes, what do you have to lose?  More to the point, you may have a lot to gain.  Some vineyard managers may take advantage of microclimates on their properties to grow grapes that can take profit from those conditions.  So, for example, many of those Paso Robles Pinot Noirs are grown behind the Templeton Gap, which gets its cool, foggy breezes from the Pacific.  These wines are never going to be confused with Burgundies, but some of them do express their own terroir, so they’re worth tasting on their own merits.
  • Why look for the unexpected wines? That’s one of the reasons to go wine tasting in the first place.  If it weren’t for trying these out-of-the-way wines, you could skip wine tasting and stick with your local wine store.  In some cases, they may be the only chance you have to taste these kinds of wine at all in that region.  We recently wrote about the wines made from Croatian grapes at Grgich Hills.  We’ve been to a couple of wineries where we were told that they were the only ones growing Tannat in California.  And I can think of only one where we have tasted Peloursin.
  • Is it worth the trip to try these wines? Probably not.  But that’s not the point.  If you’re already tasting the grapes that an area is famous for, trying something unusual is just an addition to your experience, not the basic rationale for an excursion.  There are places in Wine Country where the growers plant every grape they can, in hopes that the casual buyer will seek a specific varietal.  For the most part, most of these wines are not very good, because of both an unfavorable climate and an unfamiliar farmer.  There’s a reason they don’t grow Zinfandel in Canada or Marechal Foch (look it up) in Temecula, California  Or, at least, they shouldn’t.
  • Are these wines worth buying? If you like them, then sure, go ahead.  And if you want to share something really unusual with your friends, these offer the chance to do so.  But make sure you explain what makes them unusual.  Don’t be a wine snob.

 

 

Talking About Wine

Power Tasting has written before about the perils of wine snobbery.  It’s an affront to politeness and often to the people in front of whom the snob is showing off.  But conversing about wines with friends and acquaintances who are knowledgeable about wine is a pleasure that should not be avoided either.  In fact, with a certain circle of our friends, we know that every get-together is going to include discussions about wine.

 

Photo courtesy of Skurnick Wines & Spirits.

No one is trying to one-up the other.  Still, we can drop phrases like “a high degree of malo*” into conversation and know that we will be understood.  It is fascinating to sit around a dinner table and hear others expressing their opinions about aromas and tastes, some of which each person agrees with and others that lead to statements like, “Are you sure we’re drinking the same wine?”  We trust our own senses and have faith in those of our friends, so such a discussion is informative, not confrontational.

There are particular lessons to be learned when one person is particularly familiar with a specific wine or wines from lesser known grapes or regions.  We, for instance, can speak knowledgeably about Quebecois dessert wines, since we spend a fair amount of time in the Quebec  province.  And if someone else can compare them with, say, ice wines from Ontario or Germany, so much the better.

A few problems can arise when the conversation drifts towards wines.  If everyone in the room has a roughly equivalent degree of knowledge, that’s okay.  But it does risk slipping into rather boring discussions after a while.  This is even more the case if not everyone is at the same level or, even worse, some don’t really care about wine at all.  By comparison, imagine being in a room full of Yankee fans and not only you don’t root for the Bombers, but you don’t know left field from first base.  The line between knowledge and snobbery is a fine one and might differ depending on the observer.

The way to make a wine conversation more amenable for everyone is to avoid specialist terminology and talk about one’s own impressions.  Many people are in the dark when someone says that a wine evokes, say, warm buttered toast.  But when those same people are offered two wines from the same grape and asked to dig down a bit to differentiate them, their taste buds go to work.

If, for example, they are offered a California Chardonnay and a Chablis, they may be astonished to find out that they’re made from the same grape.  When asked what makes one smell and taste different from the other, they may bring up words like butter, apples and oak.  This puts everyone on the same plane.  We’ve known beginners who have tasted something subtle that the experienced wine people, attuned to what is supposed to be in a type of wine, have overlooked.

* It means that the wine has undergone a lengthy second malolactic fermentation, which turns rather austere malic acid to buttery lactic acid.

Béziers

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.

 

How to Change Your Mind About Wine…and Not

In our earliest years of wine tasting, we thought that only wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon were worth drinking.  Oh, well, we were young and foolish.  Of course, we’ve broadened our tastes significantly in the intervening time.  Each time we realized we really liked a wine we hadn’t cared for before, we had to change our mind.

The same applies in reverse.  There were some awfully sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers that we wouldn’t be interested in anymore.  Perhaps if we tried them again we might like them, but we doubt it.

Changing your mind about anything isn’t easy, wine included.  So here are some tips for revising your opinions specifically about wine, but maybe broader than that.  Many of these lessons we learned in Sonoma County, the theme of this issue.

Photos courtesy of Kazzit and the dailymeal.com

  • Keep your mind open. You’ll never improve your taste if you aren’t able to accept the possibility that you might learn to like wines you hadn’t liked before.  For the longest time, we weren’t particularly fond of Pinot Noir.  We found them too thin, too acid.  But we have learned to appreciate some Pinot Noirs, especially those from Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.
  • Keep trying. Maybe your ability to appreciate certain tastes and aromas has expanded.  Or maybe you’ll find a winemaker who does a better job than those you have tried before.  One of the advantages of wine tasting in Sonoma County is the vast range of varietals that are available there.  Often one winery will have a dozen different ones.  So if you try wine made from grapes you haven’t cared for in the past, you’ll still be able to sip others you know you like.  Maybe you’ll be surprised.
  • Differentiate the same types of wine from different areas. There are still some Pinot Noirs that don’t appeal to us.  We just can’t get our tongues around this varietal the way they make it in Sonoma County’s Green Valley.  But there are some just a bit south in Petaluma that do please us.  Is it terroir?  Specific winemakers?  Sheer luck?  Whatever the case, we went from “We don’t like it” to “We don’t like some of it” which is one way to change your mind.
  • Go back, you may love it. Sometimes a winery just has a bad year.  Here’s an example.  We have always loved the Zinfandels from Limerick Lane.  But in 2011, the winery changed hands and the new owners, by their own admission, didn’t make wines that lived up to the potential of their vines that year.  We dropped out of their club and didn’t visit again for several years.  When we did we were delightedly surprised.  Now we visit whenever we are in Healdsburg and buy some of their Zins every year.
  • Recognize that your tastes change. It may not be the wine that changes, but you.  Whether your tongue has become more sophisticated or you just have learned to like more wines, go with it.  There’s no reason not to accept your tastes for what they are, as long as you are ready to change them when given the opportunity.

Dry Creek General Store

Sonoma County has several rather distinct wine growing regions, each of which specializes in certain grapes that flourish in their respective terroirs.  There’s Russian River for Pinot Noir, Alexander Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon and Dry Creek for Zinfandel.  Every place grows Chardonnay.  For wine tasters, one of the problems with the broad spread of Sonoma County is that wherever you go to taste wine, you’re pretty far from a place to buy lunch.

Photo courtesy of The Press Democrat

In the Dry Creek sector, you really have only one choice: the Dry Creek General Store.  This emporium on Dry Creek Road comes complete with a lot of history.  It’s an attraction in itself, beyond the food.  It has been open since 1881, serving gold miners, bootleggers, travelers and locals for decades.  In its day, it has sold all sorts of provisions, as evidenced by an ancient photo on the store’s web site (http://www.drycreekgeneralstore1881.com) proudly stating that hardware and dry goods are for sale.

Today’s Dry Creek General Store is a combination delicatessen and gift shop.  The deli side of the store makes sandwiches from a wide variety of meats and cheeses  on artisanal breads, together with salads.  The other sells  cutesy things that nobody needs but that are pretty little gifts.  But it wasn’t always this way.  In recent memory, the meats were ham and roast beef, the breads commercial white and whole wheat.  The rest of the store wasn’t a gift shop.  They sold nails and pots and towels and, and, and – the stuff of a true rural general store.  Yuppie sandwiches and merchandise make the store more accessible to many travelers, at the expense of authenticity.

And then there’s the bar adjacent to the store.  As of this writing, it’s closed, because some patrons thought it was okay to take their drinks away with them, a violation of local licensing laws.  The owners are fighting to get their permit back and so the bar will surely be open soon.  Then you will be able to see a crazy collection of general store memorabilia hanging from the ceiling and you can down your beer while sitting on a horse saddle.  And you’ll be able to share that beer with a few locals who look like they stepped out of a time warp or from central casting.

Photo courtesy of Dry Creek General Store

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive on a day when there’s a barbeque going in front of the store.  Depending on the day, you’ll be able to buy brisket or sausages or even crabs.  While there’s no documented evidence of such cookouts in the old days, it feels like a throwback to a communal past that may never have existed, but ought to have.

And that’s the reason to make sure you visit the Dry Creek General Store in your wine tasting travels.  It’s a real part of the past, now adapted to the needs of the present day.  The people of the area don’t need a general store when there’s a Walmart just down the highway.  In our times, there’s money to be made in wine tourism, so the store serves this generation of customers.  Come and feel a part of the past as you munch on a sandwich out on the porch.

Welcome to Power Tasting

November-December 2017 Edition – The Good Stuff

This issue concerns some of the better aspects of wine tasting: top wines, good deeds and good times.  There’s a little in France, a little in New York and more than a little in California.  As we keep saying, Wine Country is a big place.  So come with us to:

  • Rochioli Vineyards and Winery – a winery in Sonoma County whose wines have been served many times at the White House
  • Lucky Find – the wine experience that grew from finding a wallet in a cab
  • The Funk Zone – partying while you taste on a visit to Santa Barbara
  • Tasting the Greats – tips on getting the most out of a visit to the very best wineries

Articles from the October issue are also still available:

About Power Tasting

Power Tasting is a monthly e-magazine about the wine tasting experience, not about wine itself.  We offer suggestions to the traveler who wishes to visit wineries and taste good wine. We are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur. We want to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar and to be able to taste – not drink – as much as possible within the boundaries of safety and sanity.

Each issue has four sections:

  • Wine Tasting Tips – There is advice to those new to wine tasting and to seasoned tasters alike.  This section aims to give visitors to Wine Country, wherever in the world that may be, useful techniques to get the most out of their visits.
  • Wineries – Each issue has a review of the experience of visiting a particular winery.  Some may be in the wine making areas that wine lover most frequently travel to, like Napa Valley or Bordeaux.  And other issues feature wineries as far off the beaten track as we can go.
  • Experiences – In our travels, as with other wine tasting enthusiasts, we have had many experiences, some humorous, some inspiring and some best shared so that others might avoid them.  This section relates them to Power Tasting’s readers.
  • Places to Visit – Wine Country is a fabulous place.  It has vineyards and wineries, restaurants and galleries and it is in the country and in cities.  It is anywhere that wine is available for tasting.  Each month Power Tasting takes you to interesting places other than wineries,  offering suggestions for what else to do on a wine tasting trip.

Who We Are

A few years ago, Lucie Gauthier and Steve Ross (a married couple living in Manhattan) set out to write a book about wine tasting. We are avid lovers of wine from all over the world and have travelled widely to wine growing regions on four continents. However, we don’t feel qualified to offer advice or even public opinions about wine.

[Well, that’s not exactly true. Steve offers two rules: 1. Know what you like. 2. Remember what it’s called.]

As mentioned, comments about wine will be incidental. We’re focusing on the overall experience, including the service, knowledge of the personnel, crowd management, artwork, architecture and the overall ambience of the wineries we visit. We may even mention where to have a picnic or take a walk in the garden. And we may write about some restaurants, shops and other things to do while on a wine tasting trip.

We are pleased to share our enthusiasm for wine tasting and invite our readers to share theirs with us.

Editorial: Why Power Tasting Has No Bad Reviews

Each issue of Power Tasting contains a review of the tasting experience at a winery, often in California’s Wine Country but also of wineries we have visited elsewhere around the world.  The review never says, “We had a terrible time.  Don’t go there.”  That’s not because we have never visited a subpar winery.  Rather, it’s our view of service to our readers.  We enjoy suggesting places you might like to visit and take no pleasure in telling you what to avoid.

There are many so-called “magazines” available in Wine Country, that find everything to be wonderful.  Their articles are mostly written by vineyard public relations people and the magazines, if not on the take, are recompensed by advertising dollars.  This is absolutely not the case with Power Tasting.  We take no money or advice from anyone in our appraisals for the tasting experience.  In fact we pay to be members of the wine clubs at several of our favorite wineries.

If you read some of our commentary closely, you’ll see that there are some where the overall experience is commendable but we’re not crazy about the wine.  You may also see that we prefer simple wineries to elaborate Napa Palaces.  But we also recognize that tastes differ and that it would be better to let you discover the occasional winery you’re less than satisfied with, than try to keep you away from having your own wine tasting discoveries.

We always focus on the tasting experience you can have when you visit the wineries we write about, not the wines themselves. But sometimes when we make a wonderful discovery, it’s difficult not to write a little about it.

Tasting the Barrels

Some time ago, we took a class at the Joseph Phelps winery in St. Helena on the subject of cooperage, the making of wine barrels.  We learned that the source and treatment of the oak makes a distinct difference in the taste of the wines matured in them.  Then, on a visit to Paso Robles we got a graduate course.

The location was the Écluse winery (www.eclusewines.com), on a hill on the west side of town.  Écluse is the French word for the locks that accommodate slopes in canals, opening and closing to allow boats to pass at different levels.  The owners are Steve and Pam Lock, hence the name of the winery.  We had heard about their Rhone varietals and asked for an appointment to come visit.  Like many wineries in Paso Robles, Écluse is only open for the public on weekends.  As we were in the area Monday through Thursday, a special appointment was de rigeur (more French).

We pulled into a gravel lot in front of a barn-like structure and were greeted by Steve Lock himself.  Inside the barn were racks of barrels full of maturing wine and a small bar area with some boards stretched between a few barrels and wine bottles resting on them.  This was wine tasting like it used to be, Napa in the ‘70s!  We explained to Steve that our interest was in the Rhone grapes and he was happy to oblige us.  Then he explained that Écluse is as well known for its Cabernet Sauvignons as its Rhones.  Would we like to try some?

Steve Lock serving in the barrel room.  Photo courtesy of Yelp

We guess we must have given Steve an idea that we were really interested in wine because he then involved us in a fascinating experiment.  He had juice from the same vintage of his Cabernet Sauvignons aging in new French, American and Hungarian barrels.  The French barrels have the finest grain, imparting a mellow, oaky flavor.  The Americans have the widest grain, giving the wines a distinct top note.  The Hungarians are in-between and project a creaminess to the wines.  Steve took a wine thief and poured some of each, one at a time, into three different glasses.  We sipped each and had never understood the impact of the cooperage on the taste of wine as much as we did that day.

A wine thief in use.  Photo courtesy the Weekly Grape.

Then we got to play assistant winemaker.  Steve gave us each another glass and encouraged us to blend some of the wine that we still had from the three barrels.  We have no memory of what we made that day, but we are quite certain that it wasn’t as good as what came out of the bottle we received a few years later, since we joined the Écluse wine club that day.

Sanford Winery & Vineyards

Sanford Winery (http://www.sanfordwinery.com/) makes Burgundian wines – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – in Santa Barbara County’s famed Santa Rita Hills.  Sanford has a tasting room in the Santa Rita Hills that we haven’t visited and also one in the city of Santa Barbara, which we have.  Sanford is a Terlato property, the same as Chimney Rock in the Napa Valley.  That fact alone is evidence of high quality wines and knowledgeable servers.  Santa Barbara’s wine tasting scene is a bit schizophrenic, with a wild party atmosphere in the so-called Funk Zone downtown near the ocean and more refined tasting rooms uptown in or near the classy shopping district on State Street.  Needless to say, Sanford is uptown.

Some in-town tasting rooms are strictly commercial.  Others project a feeling of being in a nice club room.  Still others try to incorporate the atmosphere of the town they are in into the tasting room.  Sanford is a bar, a very classy bar to be sure, but all the same, a bar.  It has a polished wooden floor, some large and small tables and a bar with some high stools.  There’s no standing tastings at Sanford.

Photo courtesy of Winery Explorers (http://wineryexplorers.com/)

It’s in a shopping center.  Again, it’s an up-scale shopping center with restaurants and shops full of beautiful things, but it’s a shopping center and it affects the wine tasting experience at Sanford.  The wines, which are first-rate, become another expensive luxury item.  Okay, all wine is an expensive luxury, but it doesn’t need to feel that way.  So when you visit Sanford, and we hope you do, keep the door at your back.

Photo courtesy of Sanford Winery

What you will get when you go to Sanford is, in ascending order, a lesson in their wines, their Sanford & Benedict vineyard and winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.  All of this is accompanied by quite a broad range of wines for you to sample.  Some of the wines Sanford produces are breathtakingly expensive; in all likelihood you won’t get a chance to taste those.  But the ones that are available to taste give an excellent perspective of what the Santa Rita Hills is capable of and what American Pinot Noirs ought to be.

In some ways, the best part of tasting in Sanford’s Santa Barbara location is that you get to sip these wines without the necessity of an hour or more of driving to Lompoc, where Sanford is based.  In fact, that case could be made for tasting wines in the city of Santa Barbara rather than trying to take in all the wineries in the rather vast county of Santa Barbara.  Many other top-end wineries have realized that and have opened tasting rooms in-town.

The wine-tasting experience at Sanford Santa Barbara is a bit unusual but definitely worthwhile.  The same may be said of visiting Santa Barbara itself, to be addressed in a future Places to Visit article.