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.

Champagne vs. the Rest of the World

Sparkling wine is made almost everywhere that grapes are grown.  We’ve had sparklers from France (Champagne, the Loire), Napa Valley, Sonoma County, South Africa, Australia, Long Island and Brazil (yes, Brazil).  But only the sparkling wines of the Champagne region in northern France can be called Champagne.  Real Champagne can only be made from three grapes, one of which is white (Chardonnay) and two reds (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).  Any sparkling wine that has pretentions of real Champagne must be made by the méthode champenoise, with still white wine double fermented in the bottle.

So when you’re looking to buy a bottle of bubbles, which one should you choose?

  • Why are you buying it? If it’s to drink by the pool on a hot summer afternoon, there’s no sense spending big money for a great wine.  There are many California sparkling wines that are affordable and quite good, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros being the best known.  On the other hand, if the purchase is for a romantic dinner or a big celebration, go for the real stuff.  It will cost you more; it’s hard these days to find any Champagne for less than $40, but that’s what romance and celebrations cost.
  • Where are you? If you’re in Italy, drink Prosecco.  In Spain, order the Cava.  In Germany, it’s Sekt.  In other words, do what the locals do.  Note that in California and Long Island, the people there do drink imported Champagne as well as the local sparkling wines.
  • How much do you want to spend? As mentioned, real Champagne doesn’t come cheap.  But there are also many American sparklers that are fairly expensive.  For example, a bottle of Domaine Carneros Le Rêve can set you back up to $125.  And, without mentioning names, there are some wines with bubbles in them that are very cheap but aren’t even worth the ten bucks or less that you’ll pay for them.  So be reasonable, set your price point and then buy accordingly.
  • Have you tried them? Just because a wine comes from Champagne doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it.  We like most that we’ve had, but there are some that just don’t tickle our palates as much as, say, a Sparkling Pointe from Long Island.  Wine tasting rule #1 is know what you like: If there’s a sparkling wine you particularly like, by all means buy it.  If your intent is to impress your friends with your wine expertise (never a very good idea), you’d better try it first.  There are gems at relatively low prices and there are expensive Champagnes that, to our tastes, just aren’t worth the expense.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to experiment, just to find out which is which.
  • Do you remember what it’s called? That’s wine tasting rule #2.  If, say, you were at a party and the host poured you a glass of something that knocked your socks off, ask what it is so you can buy it yourself.  If you’re not good at remembering names, write it down.  A name like Tribaut Schlosser doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it to the store clerk from memory alone.  (By the way, it’s Tree-boe Shlahs-er.)

Strange Grapes

In the United States, we drink a lot of wine produced domestically, more from California than from the other states.  For the most part the wines we drink are made from grapes brought over from France.  The Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes are the most popular, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  But the borders of Wine Country are far more extensive, even within Europe.

The Georgians age their wines in amphorae, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans did.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In recent years, Americans have been eager to try wines from new places.  Of course, Italy and Spain have always been a part of American wine drinking, but German Riesling and Austrian Grüner Veltliner have increasingly been appearing on wine lists and on store shelves.  But what about Saperavi from Georgia in the Caucasus?  Or Feteasca Neagra (or the “Dark Maiden”) from Romania?  Hungarian Kékfrankos, anyone?

We recently had the opportunity to taste a lot of wines from countries where we didn’t know that wine was made, from grapes we never heard of, including those just mentioned.  It forced us to think about how to deal with such unique tastings.

  • Start with an open mind. Just because we hadn’t heard of these wines shouldn’t have made us presuppose anything about them.  The producers of many of them were eager to inform us that wine had been produced in their country for thousands of years, so if it was good enough for the Romans, why not us, too?  And indeed many had distinctive aromas and tastes that weren’t quite like anything we’d tasted before.
  • Consider the history. Yes, there was wine in these parts of Wine Country a millennium ago, but what about recently?  In a number of cases we were told that after World War II, their entire export market was to Russia, where wine drinkers prefer sweetness in their glasses.  Accordingly, most native vines – not all – were pulled up and replaced with more familiar grapes that were left to over-ripen.  Post Cold War, the local grapes were replanted, so that what is now available on the market is made from relatively young vines.
  • Judge the wines on their own merits. Not everything was great; a few were awful; and most were interesting but not on a par, to our tastes, with better Californian and Western European wines.  But so what?  Okay, we’d never tasted Saperavi, so these were the best we ever had.  And they were quite pleasant, something we’d like to try again with, say, stuffed peppers such as distant Romanian relatives once made for us.
  • Quietly compare these grapes with what you know. We found a great deal of similarity of some of these wines with those from grapes we were more familiar with, especially Syrah.  Syrah is a very adaptable grape, producing very different tastes depending on the terroir, so maybe that connection was only in our minds.  Or was it some deep-seated ancestry?  We certainly don’t know, but this reference did enable us to think of the kinds of food that each strange grape would go well with, i.e., the same ones we would choose to go with Syrah.

Wines You Can’t Buy Back Home

It happens so often.  We’re at a winery and really loving the wine we’re tasting.  We don’t have the space to take any home with us, so we ask, “Where can we buy this wine?” only to be told that it’s for sale in the winery only.  Or for club members only.  Or, overseas, that the production is so small that distributors don’t find it worthwhile to export it.  The only thing we could do is to buy a case on the spot – if they’ll sell it to us – and have it shipped, which is ruinously expensive.  So all we can do is leave, just a little disappointed.

If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some tips to soothe your disappointment.

  • Have someone local pick up a few bottles for you. This isn’t always feasible, because you may not know anyone in some of the more remote corners of Wine Country.  But in the instances when you do have a local friend, you might ask them to hold on to this special wine until your next trip or when they visit you.  Of course, these had better be very reliable friends… or they may be overly tempted to try out the wine you leave with them.

  • Consider the winery’s other wines. It’s too bad that you can’t find a top-of-the-line wine in your home town, but maybe you can find one of their other wines that are more available.  If a winemaker is capable of something that knocked your socks off, they probably are as attentive to their lesser wines as they are conscientious with their best one.  We have experienced this with Château des Estanilles in France.  Their Raison d’Etre is one of our favorite wines from the Languedoc, but it’s produced so sparingly that they don’t ship it.  But they have another they call Vallongue, and we drink it frequently when we’re in Canada.  (For some reason, it’s not imported into the US.)
  • Use your taste memory to record a great souvenir. There is an ocean of wine in this world and you’re not going to taste them all.  A small percentage of them are truly great; in all likelihood you’re not going to have a chance to try all of them either.  So when you do get a chance to sip something especially special, savor the moment.  Smell it deeply.  Roll it around in your mouth, while doing your best to remember every nuance of what you’re tasting.  You may never pass this way again, so carpe diem.
  • Tell your friends about the wine that got away. Sort of like fishermen do.  The point is that you know you’ve had a great experience.  If nothing else, you’ll encourage your friends to visit that winery so they can share your enthusiasm.  Or maybe just make them a little jealous.  But avoid being a wine snob; this wine was just a part of your vacation to them.


Mountain Wine Tasting

In an overly broad, but nonetheless true, pronouncement we can say that all wine comes from one of two places: hillsides and valleys.  Some, but not many, of these hillsides are actually mountains, but most are just large hills that the locals call Mt. This and Mt. That.  For example, there’s the famous Burgundies from Montrachet, which is Mount Rachet to anglophones and, quite frankly, is nothing more than a bump on the plain.

But sometimes, you may want to try some wines from mountain wineries.  If you’re going wine tasting in Napa/Noma, Valpolicella or the Languedoc or the Northern Rhone you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy wines from both upper and lower altitudes.

The Chappellet vineyards in winter.

Visiting wineries in the valleys is a relatively simple affair.  Get on the region’s main drag and drive along; you’ll find vineyards and wineries on either side of the road.  Wine tasting in mountainous regions is a bit trickier.  There is no main drag.  Wineries are harder to find and are usually further apart.  And the driving is considerably more difficult.

So if you plan to taste in the mountains, it’s a good idea to consider a few tips:

  • Know where you’re going. Of course, this is good advice throughout life, but it has double resonance in mountain wine tasting.  For one thing, we have found that GPS systems get a little lost up high where the “streets” are often little more than barely paved roads.  Also, there are often few signs to let you know that you’re actually headed in the right direction.
  • Plan your time. It takes time to drive up a mountain.  And once you get where you’re going, it takes time to get back.  Then, once you get to a winery up in the hills, you may find it’s the only one in the area, so your trip is for just one tasting.  Now, that’s not all bad.  We’ll take the drive anytime if the destination is Chappellet or Quintarelli, even if it takes all or most of the afternoon.   We’re not sure, though that we’d make such a drive for a winery we’ve never heard of.
  • Recognize the exceptions to the previous tip. There are mountains with a selection of wineries.  Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain, for example, offers a pretty broad selection of wineries at which you may taste.  Some of them, like Cain, Pride and Smith-Madrone are well worth a visit.  The same may be said of France’s Côte Rôtie, where there is, in fact, a small but drivable main road, the D386, along which you’ll find many excellent wineries and even some places to eat.
  • Speaking of which, bring your lunch. Noting the exception in the previous tip, there are unlikely to be many restaurants, cafés or even snack bars up in the mountains.  Unlike in the valleys, there is no pass-through traffic and not that many people live there.  So it’s not an economic proposition to open an eatery there.  You may have to drive a while for something to eat.  We were in the hills above Valpolicella and asked a winemaker where we might have lunch.  He pointed across the valley to a spot on the horizon atop the next ridge.  Down one mountain, ten miles in the valley and up another on we had a great meal.

Evaluating Years

Wine snobs are (in)famous for their adulation of certain vintages.  “Ahh, the ’82 Bordeaux” one might croon, while another swoons over 1997 California Cabs.  We plead guilty to some of that, because we often try to buy certain favorite wines in years that are reputed to be top-tier or a millésime, as the French say.

However, we have found that many people we know don’t really care about the year a wine was made.  There is a certain logic to that way of thinking, especially for those who primarily drink wines from California.  The relative equanimity of the climate there, especially compared with wines from areas with more variable weather, such as Burgundy, means that there is less variability in the quality of Californian wines, year over year.

Photo courtesy of Vine Pair.

That is not to say that there aren’t better and worse years in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, for example.  2011 was a stinker, while the following three years were among the best.  For the most part, the distinction is only evident in the pricier premium wines.  If all you want is something to go with a burger and fries in the backyard, buy a good label and don’t worry about which year it was made.

But if you are on a wine tasting trip, it may be interesting to try to evaluate vintages.  Here are a few tips if you want to try.

  • Develop a sensory memory. Yeah, sure, nothing to it.  Some of the greatest experts have trouble with this, so don’t feel too bad if you can’t remember the aroma and taste of the wine you sipped an hour ago, much less days or weeks.  Still, if you know in advance that you will be visiting a winery that you particularly like, open a bottle of that wine and really concentrate on the smell, mouth feel and taste.  Maybe even write down your sensations and then really try to remember when you are tasting other vintages.  Good luck.
  • Taste a vertical. A vertical is a selection of the same wine from different years, often successive years.  This is really the best way to evaluate the differences between years, but is somewhat difficult (or at least expensive) to accomplish.  Many of the better wineries have older bottles, called library wines, available for tasting for a fee.  Lining up a few glasses with the same wine from different years exposes much about the terroir and the winemaker’s art, and helps tasters to develop their knowledge of wine.
  • Make your own vertical. You don’t have travel to a winery to have access to a vertical.  If you belong to a wine club, you will probably receive the same wine from each year’s harvest.  If you put down some of those wines, they’ll be available to open two or three from different years and compare them.  It’s a good idea to do this with some friends, since you don’t want to finish two or three bottles yourself and you don’t want to lose some of your most treasured wines.

All of this is for academic or at least snobbish reasons.  The point of wine tasting is not to parade your expertise but rather to enjoy what’s in the glass in front of you or if you don’t, to know why.  You can look up the consensus opinions on the quality of a certain vintage in a certain locale and adjust your buying – and sipping – accordingly.


Parking, Picnics and Restrooms

In our travels, we have often experienced the excitement of discovering a new winery or a new wine that we had never heard of.  In general, we enjoy the beauty of the architecture of many wineries and the sight of endless vineyards never fails to thrill us.  Sadly, these wonders can be undermined when a winery doesn’t take care of some basic amenities.

The first of these is parking facilities.  If we are visiting in the autumn and winter months, we don’t care as much if the only parking spots available are in the bright sun.  But if we’re in Wine Country in July or August, we really appreciate a spot that’s shaded from the sun by a wall or some trees.

For one thing, we are likely to have some bottles we have previously bought sitting in the car.  We don’t want them to be cooked.  Here are a few tips.  Pick up a simple Styrofoam cooler at a drug store or grocery.  If you happen to have a mini fridge in your hotel room, buy a few ice packs and put them in the cooler.  You can also buy a Styrofoam shipping box from the first winery you visit and put your new bottles in it.  Keep it inside the car, not the trunk.  Add bottles as you buy them.  At the end of the day when you get back to your hotel, bring the bottles with you, leaving the Styrofoam box in the trunk for the next day.  (Of course, if you’re tasting near your home, just use the cooler you take on picnics or camping.)

If you don’t have a cooler, put any bottles you buy on the floor in front of the rear seats or under the front ones.  This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s better than leaving your newly bought wine in the full sunshine.  This is good practice even in the cooler months, when wine can still heat up in a closed car in the sun.

We love picnics and often dine al fresco back home.  A picnic lunch near the vines, with a newly bought bottle of a cool and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc is one of the best ways to maximize the pleasure of a day in Wine Country.  But some proprietors don’t like the mess and the critters that show up to share a meal with their visitors.  In some jurisdictions, the local elders limit or deny licenses for picnic grounds.

Picnicking at Frank Family Vineyards.

For example, only those wineries that predated Napa County’s restrictions are allowed to have facilities for picnics.  Perhaps the best known is V. Satui, in St. Helena, which has a fine delicatessen as well as wines that they produce.  Others with picnic grounds that we have enjoyed in Napa Valley are Rutherford Hill and Frank Family.

The wineries in Sonoma County are not so restricted.  We particularly recommend Dry Creek, Preston and Chateau St. Jean.  In Europe, picnicking isn’t frequently encountered at the châteaux and domaines.   But nobody cares if you bring a blanket and make yourself at home by the side of a vineyard or in a churchyard.

Finally, we expect any public location, especially one that serves liquids as a business, to have clean, well-lit restrooms.    We don’t insist on showplaces right out of Architectural Digest, but there’s no excuse for not keeping them clean and tidy.  Nothing can spoil a tasting visit like a dirty john.  We won’t name names, but they know who they are.

Wine Tasting at Parties

Fine wine goes with fine dining.  No one serves an ’05 Latour at a barbecue (well, at least no one we know).  When anyone is planning a party, in the office or at home, he or she rarely scans the cellar to find the finest.  Alas, there are too many people who figure that the beer and the hard stuff are the beverages of choice and, if they serve any wine at all, it comes from one of two jugs – red and white.

Photo courtesy of Zonin Prosecco.

At the same time, there is no reason that the wine at parties has to be plonk.  With a little thoughtfulness and a budget just above rock bottom, it’s quite possible to offer a variety of wines that can please both the knowledgeable taster and someone who just wants a pleasant beverage to pass the time.

Here are some tips for potential hosts.

  • Don’t serve anything you haven’t tasted. Sadly, you can’t always trust the advice of a clerk in a wine store.  The wine so highly spoken of may be just the one the store couldn’t get rid of.  There are plenty of worthy wines under $20 and even some that are under $15.  Wine Spectator and the New York Times generally have issues each year dedicated to available bargains.  Use it as a guide.
  • Plan to serve at least four wines. Why four?  If you assume that most people who choose wine at a party will select either a red or a white, there may well be someone who doesn’t care for one of your choices.  If there’s only one offering, that person is stuck.  If you have two of each on hand, it significantly raises your odds to please most people.

If you find yourself a guest at a shindig organized by a thoughtful host and are confronted by a small array of interesting wines, here are some tips for you.

  • To begin with, try a little of each wine. Even if you’re partial to white wines, try those and the reds.  It shows respect for the hosts and the effort that they put in to please you.  It enables you to say, “I’m generally not into big red wines, but that Beaujolais really appealed to me”.
  • Think of the party as an impromptu tasting. Try to appreciate the wines for what they are, not comparing them to other labels of the same grapes.  And if you’re being served something from somewhere you never heard of, think of it as an adventure.
  • If there’s a wine you find particularly pleasing, don’t hog it. In fact, recommend it to other guests.  If nothing else, it gives you something to talk about with people you don’t know.  Again, your host will appreciate you talking up one (or more) of the wines served.
  • Don’t worry about the glassware. If it’s a catered affair the glasses will be of the sturdy restaurant variety.  At someone’s home, expect plastic cups.  After all, you’re not going to be the one washing up afterwards.  Sure, good goblets enhance good wines, but party wine can survive inferior goblets.


Planning for a Napa/Noma Trip, Updated

For more than four decades, we would travel to California at least once a year to go wine tasting.  Occasionally we’d go to the Central Coast or a smaller, outlying sector of California’s Wine Country, which means most of the state.  But usually our destination was either Napa Valley or Sonoma County, sometimes both.  Then the pandemic came along, and like a lot of people, our travels were interrupted for a few years.

For a long time, planning for a wine tasting trip was fairly simple: flight, car and hotel.  The rest was mostly a matter of serendipity.  We’d choose an AVA, drive there and stop wherever we wanted.   We would park, walk in, belly up to the bar and taste.  When we were finished, we’d get back into the car and head up the road to do it again.

For better or worse, more planning is required these days.

  • It still makes sense to limit a day’s tastings geographically. We want to be tasting, not driving from Calistoga to Napa and then back to St. Helena.  Why waste time behind the wheel when we could be in a tasting room?  More important, when the purpose of the day’s activities is sipping alcohol, it’s really advisable to minimize driving as much as possible.
  • Appointments are necessary. Many wineries now have a “By Appointment Only” policy.  Smaller wineries – and some of the larger, snootier ones – have long been that way. That prohibition was once a ruse to keep rowdy crowds away; today the tastings are seated and the limitation is for real.  Since the pandemic, almost all Napa/Noma wineries are available only with a reservation.

A seated tasting at Black Stallion.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

  • Expect fewer but longer seated tastings. Many wineries, as a by-product of their appointment requirements, now only offer seated tastings.  Bellying up to the bar is not an option anymore or there is no bar to belly up to.  Therefore, we taste on their schedules rather than our own.   The ambiance is more guest than bar patron, which has plusses and minuses.
  • Sharing is more difficult. Since they are seated tastings, two people can’t occupy one chair.  As a result, both will have a full tasting.  Sure, we can each sip only a little but the temptation to take a few more sips is quite apparent and the cost of tasting becomes more expensive.
  • Lunch is more important than ever, but harder. If we are likely to drink a little more at each tasting, we need to get some food into us.  But fitting in a restaurant between winery visits is a challenge, especially in areas where restaurants are few and far between.
  • Packing a picnic may be the only choice. There are no restaurants and often not even delis in certain areas.  For example, there used to be the Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley, but there isn’t anything now.  And try finding a restaurant in the further extremes of Russian River.  Even with a packed lunch, there aren’t that many wineries with picnic tables in Sonoma County and hardly any at all in Napa Valley.  Dining in the car may be necessary but it’s unpleasant.

All of which is to say, Napa/Noma still has some of America’s best wineries available to visit.  They just take more preparation to enjoy them than it used to.

How to Order from Unfamiliar Wine Lists

When we go wine tasting, we are almost always tasting wines we’ve never tasted before.  Even if we’re at a familiar winery, we’re going to sample a new vintage.  Often, the tasting room will put some bottlings on their menu for the day that we’ve never heard of, much less tasted.  If we’re visiting a winery we’ve never been to before, especially when we travel abroad, we’re in the dark.

This is all great preparation for ordering wine off a restaurant’s list, where we know nothing (or almost nothing).  What to choose?  This is where our experience with wine tasting trips comes to our aid.  A few tips might help you, too.

  • You could ask your waiter. These days, your waiter may not be old enough to drink, much less to develop expertise in wine! The best you can hope for is that he or she can tell you what’s the most popular.  In fairness, the type of establishment that has inexperienced wait staff often has a less-than-inspiring wine list, sometimes consisting of two choices: red or white.

Photo courtesy of Sommeliers Choice Awards

  • Or a sommelier. At the other extreme, restaurants that do have quality wine lists may also have someone trained to help you choose, i.e., a sommelier.  But there are problems here as well.  The sommelier is an employee of the house and has an incentive to direct you to the more expensive items on the list.  A good one will ask you what types of wine you like and the characteristics you prefer, such as robustness, acidity or intensity.  And definitely what your price range is.  Even then, you’re going to be offered what he or she thinks meets your tastes, which may or may not work out.
  • Go with a wine that’s from a familiar region. If we’re dealing with wines from California, France or Italy, for example, we know enough to say “We don’t know these wines, but we know that a Bordeaux usually pleases us”.  But if we’re at a Hungarian or an Argentine restaurant, for instance, that’s not going to help.  And when we’re overseas, our best hope is to try our luck.
  • Choose on the basis of price. Think about your overall restaurant experience with wine.  How much do you usually pay for wine as a percentage of the overall meal.  A third?  A half? More?  Less?  Use that as your guide.

Or go at it the other way round.  How much do you want to spend on a bottle that night?  Probably less on a random Tuesday, more on a weekend and even more for a special occasion.  Let’s say you’re ready to spend $75.  Look for a number in the $65 to $85 range on the right side of the list.  If the restaurant is knowledgeable and honest, you’ll get a bottle that satisfies you.  This isn’t a perfect rule, but it has worked out pretty well for us.