Arrowood Winery

Back in our earlier years of wine tasting in California, there was Napa Valley and only Napa Valley.  Oh, we had heard that there was wine being made on the other side of the mountain in Sonoma County, so occasionally we’d take the Oakville Grade and find our way to Route 12 in Glen Ellen.  Turn right and we could visit Arrowood…if we could find it.  The problem was (and is) that the turnoff road for Arrowood (www.arrowood.com) is shared with another winery and that one’s sign is more prominent.  So we would drive right by.

If you see a sign for Imagery, be aware that that’s Arrowood too, and there are still some very good reasons to take that turn.

The tasting room at Arrowood, with its great view.  Photo courtesy of Winetraveler.

The first is the beauty of the setting.  Arrowood’s tasting room sits atop a rise and there is a wide panoramic window that provides a view of the vineyards and a swath of Sonoma scenery.  If you care for wine with a view (and we do) Arrowood has a lot to offer.  The building itself seems like an upscale farmhouse, but it’s a bit difficult to take in because it is best seen while driving up the hill.  Better to keep you eyes on the road.

The winery is named for its founder, Richard Arrowood.  Now retired, his career reads like a history of Sonoma winemaking.  He began at Korbel in 1965; then at Rodney Strong; was the first winemaker at Chateau St. Jean and then opened his own winery in 1985.  The winery has changed hands several times over the years and is now in the Jackson Family collection, with Richard staying involved through 2010.

He has been a strong proponent of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County and the wines you will sample there lean heavily in that direction.  The winery used to make a Syrah that we particularly liked, but that no longer seems to be the case.  They source grapes from all around the county: their own estate in Sonoma Valley, whites from Russian River, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley.  This alone is a reason to have a tasting at Arrowood.  With one winemaking team, the differences among the wines must be reflective of the terroirs where the grapes are grown.  In general, we have found the servers to be knowledgeable and helpful, especially in describing the different vineyards.

If you happen to be tasting in December, you’ll find the tasting room to be pleasantly decorated for the season, with a fire going in the fireplace.  It reflects the elegant hominess that is a hallmark of Arrowood, both the winery and the wines.

Arrowood’s story in many ways echoes that of top-end California winemaking.  It has a reputation and a style built around its founder, a Sonoma County pioneer.  It has been sold and re-sold and now belongs to a multi-label corporation.  While Jackson is best known for its low-end wines, the company does own quite a few well-respected vineyards.  It seems that Arrowood is left to its own stylistic devices; still, there is a similarity among its wines and among Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignons generally.  Is this a good thing or the opposite?  Each taster needs to make up his or her own mind.

 

 

Wineries of Saint-Chinian

Power Tasting’s normal practice is to review one winery each issue.  But whole there are many wineries in Saint-Chinian making quite good wine, there are no standouts so we thought it best to review a group of them to give a sense of what wine tasting is like in the region.

Saint-Chinian is an appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC.  Within it there 20 communes or sub-regions.  There is a difference between the wines from the rockier souls of the north and the clay/limestone of the south, so we are offering capsule descriptions of four, chosen for their proximity to the town of Saint-Chinian.

Château Belot

Château Belot is in the Pierrerue commune and is nestled in the midst of its vines and plentiful garrigue.  (What is garrigue, you ask?  To say it is wild-growing brush is true but doesn’t say enough.  It has an earthy herbal aroma that somehow manages to infuse itself into many of the wines of the Languedoc.)  The building housing the winery and tasting room is an expression of the Spanish-influenced architecture often seen in Saint-Chinian.

As is common in Saint-Chinian, all of Belot’s wines are made with the customary Rhône grapes: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in the reds and more variety in the whites made from Viognier, Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and other grapes.  The tasting room is simple and modern.  There aren’t a lot of visitors, so one server manages to attend to all guests.

The vineyards of Château du Prieuré des Mourges

Even smaller is the Château du Prieuré des Mourges, also in the Pierrerue commune.  The domaine was once the property of the bishops of some nearby towns and there may have even been a priory there.  There is no tasting room as such, but there is a room where you might well find the winemaker, Jérôme Roger, at work and happy to share a glass with you.

He doesn’t make a lot of wines but we found the wines of Prieuré des Mourges to be among the richest in the area.  Enjoy them while you’re in Saint-Chinian because they do not export to the United States.

The tasting room at Château La Dournie

Château La Dournie has been passed from mother to daughter for many generations.  Located in the Saint-Chinian commune, right outside the village, it is rather spartan and industrial although the building is attractively vine-covered.  The tasting room is evocative of Napa Valley in the 1960’s: two barrels and not even a plank between them.

Like the others, La Dornie makes a variety of red, white and rosé wines from traditional Rhône grapes.  Most are meant for consumption with meals, but they also make wines called Shebam!, Wizz! and Oops! that you just can’t takeseriously.

Tasting at Clos Bagatelle

Clos la Bagatelle, is located in the Saint-Chinian commune, but has parcels of land in four different areas.  It dates back to 1623 and has been in the same family – mother to daughter – for all that time.  The tasting room is not much more than a shed and the inside, while clean and well lit, is hardly more than two half barrels.

A visit to Clos la Bagatelle is interesting in that you get a chance to taste the work of a Saint-Chinian winemaker from lands around the Languedoc.  As with all the wineries mentioned here, you will be welcomed and well attended if you do stop by.

Cakebread Cellars

There are some wineries you visit for the gorgeous views.  Others have unique architecture.  Some (not our favorites) cultivate a party atmosphere.  You go wine tasting at Cakebread Cellars (www.cakebread.com) for the wine.

Now, Power Tasting does not do wine reviews, but it’s fair to say that Cakebread makes some pretty fine wine.  They’re best known for Cabernet Sauvignon and we’ve enjoyed their Pinot Noir in the past.  The winery building itself is pleasant enough, but not such an architectural wonder that you’d make a special trip.  The big attractions are an attention to wine tasting as a unique activity and some of the most knowledgeable servers we have ever encountered.

Cakebread Cellars’ winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

In the past, we have always indulged ourselves with the reserve tasting.  The ability of the servers to understand each visitor’s level of knowledge and interest and explain the wines in alignment with the individual, have always impressed us.  We don’t know if it is still the case, but pre-pandemic we learned that all the servers in the reserve room were qualified sommeliers.  In one case, a server showed us a book on wine that he had written.  Impressive, right ?

These days the reserve tasting is supposedly limited to Cabernet Sauvignons and they do pour quite a few of them.  We’ve found that there’s usually some other interesting wine behind the bar, just for contrast.  On one visit, we expressed disappointment not to taste their Merlot, so the server ran out and got a bottle to open for us.  This is indicative of their attitude about wine tasting and towards their guests. They clearly enjoy sharing wine and experience with people.  As a visitor, you cannot help but being caught up in their enthusiasm.

We have not tried it, but Cakebread now has a seated group tasting, highlighting library wines.  We’re sure it lives up to the experiences we have had.

Cakebread is very serious about their “by appointment only” policy.  While many wineries use the limitation as a way of managing crowds, at Cakebread no reservation means no tasting.  Of course, this gives the staff the opportunity to really focus on the people who do call or email in advance.  We recognize that the ways and manners of Napa Valley wine tasting have changed since our earliest wine tasting days.  Still, there’s a different feel to such formality that doesn’t always sit well with us.

Jack and Dolores Cakebread were among the pioneers of Napa Valley winemaking back in the 1970’s.  Their sons now run the enterprise, which has grown to include vineyards as far afield as Howell Mountain and Anderson Valley.  Cakebread’s all wood winery building pays homage to those old days, so you can still feel a little of the vibe even if today’s reality is somewhat different.  Cakebread Cellars is an expression of what Napa Valley was and what it has become.  For lovers of the distinctly Californian style of winemaking, this winery is definitely a place to visit.

Dry Creek Vineyard

We’ve written about Dry Creek Vineyard (www.drycreekvineyard.com) before, but in a different context.  We’re very fond of this winery and have visited there often.  This year marks their 50th anniversary, which is quite an achievement, and they have been family-run for all that time, which makes the achievement even sweeter.  In the interests of openness, we have to say that we’re members of their wine club, but as we often note, we don’t review wine.  Power Tasting is about the wine tasting experience.

The theme on Dry Creek’s attractive labels is sailing.  As a club member, you can enjoy one of their many member events; pre-pandemic one of them was a sailing day in the San Francisco Bay. Of all the wineries that we know, there is none that has as many club member events as Dry Creek.

The Dry Creek Vineyard winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

And we find that there are many reasons to visit the winery and indulge in a tasting.  We do enjoy Dry Creek (the valley) and often spend a day or more in that region of Wine Country.  When we do, Dry Creek (the winery) is always on our itinerary.  Like much of this region, Dry Creek Vineyard specializes in Zinfandel.  They are well known for Sauvignon Blanc and they make some creditable Cabernet Sauvignons and blends as well.

One aspect of a tasting at Dry Creek that is rather unique is that they make seven single-vineyard Zinfandels and four different Bordeaux blends.  Not all are available for tasting at any given time, but it’s rare to have the opportunity to compare side-by-side the same grapes made into wine by the same winemaker (Tim Bell).  If nothing else, it gets you thinking about the relative influence of winemaking artistry and terroir.

The tasting room is in a vine-covered stone building, fronted by an extensive lawn and some of Dry Creek’s vines.  That lawn is a great attraction.  It has shade trees, picnic tables and some lawn games for the kids.  They’ve even put in a bocce court.  It is meant to be welcoming and family-friendly.  We have often seen little ones running around outside while their parents sipped and had lunch at nearby tables.

If you do want to have a little picnic, there’s a special advantage at Dry Creek.  They’re only four minutes’ walk, according to Google, from the Dry Creek General Store, so you don’t have to pack a picnic in advance.  Of course, in California no one walks so it’s a one-minute drive.

Dry Creek’s “insect garden”.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Another reason to visit Dry Creek is what they call their “insectary garden”.   To be honest, the name put us off for quite a few visits.  Eventually we came to recognize that Dry Creek is rather committed to sustainable farming, and insects form a part of the biosystem that they intend to preserve.  All very scientific, to be sure, but for the visitor it’s a pretty little garden to walk around in just in front of the grape vines.

 

In these pandemic times, visits are by appointment only.  We can only hope that the disease will pass and the ability to just drop in will return.

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, San Jose

There actually is a fellow named J. (for Jerry) Lohr.  He began making wines in California’s Central Coast back in the 1970’s, first in Arroyo Seco and then in Paso Robles.  He also owns a vineyard in Napa Valley but the main production comes from the center of the state.  J. Lohr has two tasting rooms, the original one in San Jose and a newer one in Paso itself, on the less artisanal east side of Route 101.

The J. Lohr tasting room in San Jose.  Photo courtesy of Travel Expert Wiki.

The San Jose site is on a city street, just off a major boulevard.  We’re fond of in-town tasting in places like Healdsburg or Calistoga, where there are several tasting rooms you can walk to.  But finding one in a city of a million people is neither bad nor good, but it is definitely unusual.  For one thing, there’s no place to park; you just find a spot in the street.  For another, there’s no indication that you’re in Wine Country.  The tasting room just stands alone.

It’s a pleasant, brick building covered in vines.  Once you enter, it’s like any tasting room anywhere: a long bar, some tables, wines on display.  And there are quite a few red and white wines available for tasting, that do show off what J. Lohr wines are all about.

And what they are about is, for the most part, easy accessibility.  You may already be familiar with these wines from a local wine shop or on a restaurant menu.  Many are inexpensive and are appropriate for casual drinking.  So why go out of your way to taste them?

The reason is that like many wineries that make their living in the mass market, they also have some wines that defy your expectations.  This applies to J. Lohr.  Yes, there are Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons available for under $15.00.  But there are also single vineyard varietals including Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands and Cabernet Sauvignon from their vineyard in Napa Valley.  Even these, by today’s standards for such wines, are relatively affordable.

And then there are a few of J. Lohr’s wines that are clearly intended to show what this winery is capable of.  As with other makers of widely sold wines, it’s a pleasure to find out that their winemakers have the talent – and the grapes – to make fine wine.  Power Tasting is about wine tasting, so we’ll leave it to wine critics to say just how good J. Lohr’s top wines are.  We found some of their Signature series wines to be quite enjoyable and certainly didn’t consider them to be casual.

We were in Silicon Valley on business and took a little side trip to San Jose to visit this tasting room.  We wouldn’t recommend a special journey there, but if you are in the area it’s worth a stop.  One of the pleasures of wine tasting is surprises, finding something you enjoy that you didn’t even know existed.  We can’t promise that all their best wines will be available for tasting when you go, but there will probably be something you’ve never tasted before.  Finding the top-end products of wineries you only thought of as making picnic wine is a very pleasant surprise indeed.

Château Fonplégade

As we have written previously, wine tasting in Bordeaux seems more than a little formal and stuffy for those of us used to visiting wineries in the U.S.  In that region of Wine Country, Saint-Émilion offers visitors the most relaxed experience.  The town itself is lively and welcoming and there are many wineries to visit without an appointment.  Nonetheless, if you want to try the wines of the top châteaux, you’ll need an appointment.

Photo courtesy of Wine.com.

One we have enjoyed is Château Fonplégade (www.fonplegade.com).  Its wines are grand cru classé.  That classé is important.  Any Saint-Émilion vineyard can call itself grand cru, but the classé must be awarded by the local wine authorities.  [The top top wines of Saint-Émilion are called premier grand cru classé.]  Of course, for a visitor, the only important thing is to taste good wine, and we have had that experience at Château Fonplégade.

Interestingly, it is owned and operated by American wine makers, Denise and Stephen Adams.  They also make ADAMVS, on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain.  It seems that Denise is the one most actively involved at Château Fonplégade.  The couple haven’t Napafied Château Fonplégade but they have raised the quality of the wine enough to obtain the cherished classé.

Unlike what we generally find in California, the French vineyard makes only two wines: the namesake Château Fonplégade and a lesser second label, Fleur de Fonplégade.  (The couple also own the Château l’Enclos in Pomerol.)  And of course being from Saint-Émilion, the wines are a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  Another aspect that distinguishes Château Fonplégade is that their wines are made biodynamically, a trend becoming quite common in France (and in California too, for that matter.)

The cellars at Château Fonplégade.  Photo courtesy of The Wine Cellar Insider.

Bordeaux rules require that all the grapes of any vineyard must come from the contiguous estate surrounding the château. Therefore, the château itself is surrounded by vines, which seem to extend forever.  Some châteaux may be no more that humble farmhouses, but in Fonplégade’s case the building is an elegant 19th century structure, intended to project the wealth and taste of its owners.  That has always been the case, but the previous owners had let it run down a bit.  The Adams’ invested in upgrading not only the château wine making facilities and the cellars.

Also under the previous regime, Fonplégade welcomed tour groups.  That is no longer the case.  You must have an appointment and the visits are, in the winery’s term, intimate.  That shouldn’t scare away American visitors.  We have met Denise Adams and she is a very easy-to-talk-to person.  The team at Fonplégade takes on that personality.

As to the word: Fonplégade means “fountain of plenty”.  There is a 13th century fountain on the property that inspired the name.  It is still in use to moisten the vineyard in dry years.

 

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey (www.tamberbey.com) is a unique experience for visitors to Napa Valley, one that hearkens back to the valley’s past.  Where today there are vineyards, restaurants and resorts not that long ago were orchards and ranches.  Tamber Bey combines the owner’s interests in both wine and horses.  The winery and tasting room are located at Sundance Ranch, where you can not only taste wine but also enjoy their horses.

In another article in this issue, we talk about discovering wines at dinner and following up with a visit thereafter.  We first discovered Tamber Bey on a small, eclectic wine list where we knew none of the wines.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was powerful and rich in the mouth then (and still is), so we drove over to see what else they had.  What we found was a ranch house (now a tasting room) with a large area behind it where visitors can lounge and horses can be stabled.  There were no vines to be seen.

The tasting room is made of wood, as is the entire location.  There’s a large bar with enough space for a dozen or so visitors to be comfortable.  We don’t think it was ever meant to be a destination for busloads of wine tasters.  If that were to occur, there’s plenty of room out back for them to sit, wander and enjoy their wine.  So when you go to Tamber Bey, try to avoid a rainy day.

Service at the bar is unusual, at least one day that we were there.  One of the servers was a fellow who we had come to know at another winery.  The other one was the Tamber Bey’s owner, Barry Waitte, who made his first fortune in information technology.  We hardly guarantee that Mr. Waitte will be pouring you some wine when you visit, but it could happen.

Tamber Bey has three levels of wine.  There’s the Vineyard Series, made from grapes grown in their vineyards in Oakville and Yountville.  Their best wines are in the Signature Collection, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Bordeaux blend they call Vermejo.  All but the Pinot Noir are estate grown.  Finally, they have introduced a second label called Three Steeds.  (There’s a lot about horses here.)  Usually second labels are inferior to the proprietary label, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Three Steeds.

About the horses: Mr. Waitte does own some fine Arabians, but the purpose of the Tamber Bey stables is to care for rescue horses that have been mistreated elsewhere.  We’re not horse people, but that seems like a pretty noble endeavor to us.

For the most part, Tamber Bey’s wines are powerful, with a great deal of alcohol in the reds.  This may not be to everyone’s taste.  Keep this in mind if you are likely to visit Tamber Bey after several other stops.

There is no place in Napa Valley, or for that matter anywhere in Wine Country, quite like Tamber Bey.  So come for the ranch ambiance and the horses and have some wine while you’re there.

Kunin Wines

From a wine tasting perspective, Santa Barbara has a split personality.  Uptown is all elegant hotels, fine restaurants and well-appointed tasting rooms.  Downtown, near the Pacific Ocean, is what they call the Funk Zone, which is all, well, funk.  This is not to say that there isn’t good wine to be had in the Funk Zone, just that the overall ambiance is not quite like anywhere else we have ever seen in Wine Country.

The Kunin tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.  Photo courtesy of hotelcalifornian.com.

Right in the middle of the Funk Zone is Kunin Wines, which has identity crisis of its own.  Not a crisis, really; Kunin seems to be quite comfortable with its identity.  But it’s a little different than other Santa Barbara wineries.  For one thing, perhaps the most important, there’s the wine.  Santa Barbara is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.  Kunin primarily makes Rhône-style wines from grapes as diverse as Grenache (red and white), Syrah, Viognier, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Roussanne and Counoise.  That’s quite a selection for an American-owned winery in southern California.

A quiet time at the bar at the Kunin tasting room.  Photo courtesy of Keepin’ It Kind.

We’ve found that the servers are quite liberal with offering a variety of tastes if you show genuine interest, not just a desire for alcohol.  But then there’s the matter of Kunin’s identity crisis.  Up until around the lunch hour, visitors can sit at the bar, taste, discuss and enjoy in a thoughtful and unhurried manner.  But once the afternoon arrives, so do the partiers.  And we do mean PAR-TEE.

The tasting room is in a building of no particular architectural interest.  But there’s a long front porch, a wide-open door and a large rectangular bar.   Just perfect for wine tasting near the beach.  And so later in the day it becomes packed – bar, porch and street front and the crowd didn’t seem to be involved in a conversation on the relative merits of real Rhône wines and California varietals.

Now we have nothing against parties.  Who doesn’t like a good party?  It’s just that when we drink wine at a party, we expect it to be cold, wet and alcoholic, nothing more.  But Kunin makes serious wine and it’s a shame not to enjoy it on its own terms.  Don’t misunderstand; these are California Rhône-style wines, not imitation anything.  They cannot be confused with wine made in the south of France, nor should they be.

For example, Kunin makes two wines they call Pape Star and Pape Star Blonde.  They’re meant to be a “versatile take on France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape”.  A take, perhaps, but hardly to be confused with the real thing.  From our point of view, they would be better off calling these wines simply California Rhône Blends, both red and white.  Drinkers should appreciate them for what they are, not what they aren’t.

We were several decades older than any other people in the tasting room and so maybe younger people will experience Kunin differently than we did.  Whatever your age, Kunin is worth a visit.

Foppiano Vineyards

If you’d like to have a glimpse of what Sonoma County used to be while still tasting wines that might appeal to more modern tastes, Foppiano vineyards is a winery to add to your list.  One reason it’s like what Sonoma County once was is that Foppiano was there back then.  It was founded in 1896 by Giovanni Foppiano, an Italian immigrant from Genoa.  To the present day, there are many Sonoma Country wineries with Italian names; in this case, the Foppiano family still owns and runs it.

Foppiano’s winery.  Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism.

The winery is a little bit out of the way although it’s easy enough to find if you start in downtown Healdsburg.  Just head down the Old Redwood Highway and there it is.  (It’s tougher to find coming off Route 101.)  It’s hard to miss, with “L. Foppiano Wine Co.” written in big letters on the side of their production building.

The Foppiano orange tree, in full (sour) fruit.

Foppiano is located in the northeast corner of the Russian River Valley, although it doesn’t feel that typical of the region.  The general image of Russian River is of winding lanes through the forest and alongside vineyards.  Old Redwood Highway and the roads that feed into it are straight as an arrow and the landscape is open and flat.

Foppiano’s tasting room.  Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.com.

Foppiano’s tasting room is housed in a little white clapboard house with a huge orange tree outside.  (They’re happy to let you take any oranges that fall, because they’re terribly sour.)  The building backs up to their factory, so the overall impression is “rustic industrial”.  The impression is softened by the vineyards that surround the buildings.  The tasting room is a bit dark with a simple bar, lit by big windows that overlook the vineyards.

As is often the case with smaller Sonoma County wineries, Foppiano produces an extremely wide range of wines.  There are Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernets Sauvignons, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Zin, a Rosé, some sparklers and even a Carignane.  With that many varietals, it is unlikely that all of them will appeal to all tastes.

However, there is one varietal for which Foppiano is best known: Petite Sirah.  A hybrid of Syrah and Peloursin, this grape was developed in France but is now largely grown only in California.  Many use it as a blending grape to provide color and depth; Foppiano began bottling it as a varietal in 1967.  Their Petite Sirahs are dark, unctuous and deeply flavorful.  Prepare for blue teeth if you try some.  In our opinion, even though their wines are drinkable on release, they really need several years cellaring to knock of some of the rougher edges.

With 125 years of history, Foppiano has certainly seen a lot of changes, both in their vineyards and in the life of Sonoma County.  For most of those years, they produced jug wines and in tribute to those days, they still sell half-gallon growlers of Petite Sirah.  We see Foppiano as a bit of a throwback to a slower, less frenzied time when the roads of the county were filled with tractors, not tourists.  As the song says, these are the good old days, but it’s pleasant to visit the good older days, too.

Taittinger and Domaine Carneros

Champagne is a sparkling wine.  If it’s really Champagne, the grapes are grown and the wine is made in the Champagne region of northern France.  Sparkling wine made in California isn’t called Champagne, with a few exceptions.  There are a few, such as Korbel and André that had been using the word historically, so they were allowed to continue using it.  (Many of us had our first taste of sparklers that come from those two producers, but if you’re into wine tasting, you probably haven’t had any of their wines for decades.)

The Taittinger visiting facility in Reims, France. 

Many of the better French producers have established wineries in California.  Among them are Moët & Chandon/Domaine Chandon and Mumm/Mumm Napa.  Taittinger in Reims developed Domaine Carneros in 1987, and the Napa Valley site is among the most visited wineries in the region.  Although the two wineries have the same ownership, they are operated completely independently.

Domaine Carneros, surrounded by vines.

For the wine-tasting visitor, there is a broad comparison between the French and American wineries.  The French winery is essentially a factory complex on an urban street.  Grape vines are nowhere to be seen.  The site was an abbey in pre-Revolutionary times, but nothing remains of it, except its cellars.  Domaine Carneros is also a factory but it looks very much like a French château.  In fact, it is modeled on (but is not a replica of) the Taittinger family manse in Champagne, nowhere near the factory.  The California site is surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, one of the most appealing vistas in Napa Valley.

The caves at Taittinger, showing the gate used by the monks in pre-Revolutionary Reims.

Both locations offer interesting tours.  At Taittinger, they walk visitors through the caves where they age their top Champagne.  You can see where the monks of the ancient abbey managed the wines in their time.  Even better, you can see a section of the cellars that were dug out by the Romans when Reims was called Durocortorum.  There’s nothing in California to beat that, but then a tour at Domaine Carneros actually gives you an understanding of how sparkling wine is made.

The tour at Taittinger concludes with a glass of Champagne; for an extra fee you can have Comtes de Champagne, their premier offering.  The California tour includes a tasting of several of Domaine Carneros’ sparkling wines, including their top wine, Le Rêve (“the dream” in French).  Better yet, even without a tour you can sit on their expansive veranda and order sparkling wine by the glass.  Sipping while taking in the view is quite a treat.

Taittinger makes only Champagnes.  Domaine Carneros also offers some excellent Pinot Noirs and have recently added a Merlot.  These still wines are also available for ordering at the winery.

The question remains: Which winery makes the better wine?  Domaine Carneros makes excellent California wines, but they’re not Champagne.  And Taittinger is one of the most reputed houses in the Champagne region.  If all you want is a loud pop and some bubbles, Domaine Carneros’ Estate Brut Cuvée will do quite nicely.  On the other hand, if you want to celebrate with the real deal, stick with Taittinger.