Greenport, Long Island

Going wine tasting on Long Island’s North Fork is a day trip for New York City residents.  Except it isn’t.  Figure two hours each way on the Long Island Expressway if you’re very lucky and it’s easy to see why it’s a good idea to plan for at least one overnight stay.  Moreover, that gives visitors a chance to take in the little villages and towns along the skinny peninsula at Long Island’s northeastern end.  (The southern fork is where rich New Yorkers go to get away from other rich New Yorkers.)

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

Once you pass through Jamesport, Mattituck, Cutchogue, Peconic and Southold you’ll get to Greenport.  It’s the largest village on the North Fork, but it can hardly be called a town, much less a city.  It is where you’ll find the most inns, restaurants and retail establishments.

These days, the major industries in Greenport are tourism and wine, which are obviously related.  It’s a scenic village with roots back to the 17th century, when it was settled by people expanding beyond New Haven in Connecticut.  At one time, fishing, oystering and whaling were the primary means of livelihood in Greenport.  The oceans were overfished and the waters became too foul for oysters and the North Fork became known for agriculture, in particular duckling and potatoes.

Greenport always retained its maritime character and many people still make their way there to sail their pleasure craft.  There is a thriving business in charter fishing, which is not our thing.  But we hear from others that at a non-industrial scale the waters are plentiful with bluefish, flounder and other flatfish, fluke, striped bass, porgies and sea bass.

Photo courtesy of Food & Wine Magazine.

We prefer to take our fish one at a time, on a plate with a little lemon sauce.  Greenport is famous for its restaurants, all nautically themed with names like the Frisky Oyster and Crabby Jerry’s.  Quite a few are elegant spots with fine wine lists and views of the marinas.  Others are more casual, with picnic tables rather than white tablecloths.

A half century ago, when Alex and Louisa Hargrave decided that potato fields might also do well with grape vines, they created an attraction that continues to bring many visitors to the North Fork and into Greenport.  Now, Greenport is not St. Helena or Healdsburg, but for those whose idea of a good time is a glass of local wine on a charming patio (AKA the readers of Power Tasting), Greenport is a place to visit.

There is a New England vibe to Greenport, some of which is mostly its natural heritage and little bit the creation of town planners.  Either way, a wine tasting trip with time given to enjoying the pleasures of an authentic fishing village, polished up to be sure, is well worthwhile.  Unfortunately, Greenport gets crowded in summer and empties out the rest of the year.  We enjoy a midweek getaway in late May or early September best of all.

La Maison des Vins

This article is the latest in Power Tasting’s irregular series on great wine bars of the world, although the Maison des Vins isn’t exactly a wine bar.

Just off the main square of the village of Saint-Chinian sits a handsome stone building with a big sign announcing that it is the Maison des Vins du Saint-Chinian, the “House of Wine of Saint-Chinian”.   At first glance, it seems to be a wine shop but it’s not, even though you can buy wine there.  Then you might think it’s the local cooperative, where the local vignerons bring their grapes to be crushed and sold as generic wine from the region.  It’s not that either, but it is the headquarters for the association of growers and vintners of the Saint-Chinian AOC.

Go inside and you will find that it is the place for you to learn about and taste the unique characteristics of the region’s wines, of which more later.  You will be greeted by a staff member whose first task, in our experience, is to size you up.  Are you looking to buy a few bottles or are you there to try their wines?  It’s pretty easy to discern the tourists (they’re not speaking French, for one thing).  And if you aren’t a buyer, are you really there to learn or just to drink some free wine and then leave.

If you, like us, want to learn, the personnel at the Maison des Vins are eager to teach.  What are you interested in, red, white or rosé?  How much do you already know?  What kind of wine do you like?  The servers are all fluent in English, so you don’t have to worry about that.

Before you even get to taste any wine, you’re likely to get a geography lesson.  Your server will explain that the north and east of the Saint-Chinian region is an area of rocky hillsides, while the south and west are level plains.  The soils are schist in the hills and calcareous limestone and clay in the plains, and the qualities of the wines from those two areas differ accordingly.

With some idea of your tastes and level of interest, your server will pour a taste from their extensive rows of wine dispensers.  If you like it, he or she will offer you others like it.  And if not, you’ll get a chance to sample other styles until you’re satisfied.  As you’re tasting, and if you show that you’re interested, the server can tell you all about the vineyard where the wine comes from and the people who made it.  In all likelihood, the farmers/winemakers have been neighbors of the region for generations and all are members of the association and therefore part-owners of the Maison des Vins.

The association publishes a guide to all the member wineries which your server will be happy to give you.  It includes a map, so after you visit the Maison des Vins, you can get in your car (or walk up the street) and go to some of your favorites.  A word of warning: many of these producers are tiny, with their premises on little country roads.  Even with a map, an address, a phone number and a web site, they’re not always easy to find.




California is a state with many thrilling cities: San Francisco’s hills, San Diego’s sailing and Hollywood!  Alas, Sacramento is not thrilling unless you’re a politician, Sacramento being California’s capital.  But if you come for a visit without overwhelming expectations, the city has much to offer.

For one thing, it is ideally suited as a base for wine tasting.  It’s pretty much in the middle of Amador County, Lodi and Napa Valley.  If you don’t mind driving a bit, they’re each about an hour away from downtown Sacramento.  Because of work requirements we had the opportunity to live there for several months.  It gave us the chance to see the city as a bit of a throwback to the California of yesteryear.

Old Town Sacramento.  Photo courtesy of CBS Sacramento.

The Old Town section is a very deliberate recollection of those times.  It’s a state historic park, where they have carefully preserved commercial buildings from the mid-19th century.  That date is important because of the great Gold Rush of 1849 that turned Sacramento from a sleepy Spanish mission town to a bustling metropolis.  Today, Old Town is a bit (well, more than a bit) touristy, but the buildings are real and you can try to imagine what it must have been like when the miners came into town.

Sacramento is located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. It has badly flooded many times.  It seems that California either has a drought or way too much rain.  If you hit a rainy period, you can walk along Old Town’s riverfront and see the Sacramento threaten to spill over its banks.  It happened often enough that the city leaders raised up the Old Town section in its entirety, so you probably won’t have water lapping at your ankles (or higher) when you’re there.

One real attraction there is the Railroad Museum, with several old steam engines to gawk at.  You can event take a ride on an old train, up the Sacramento River.

The Crocker Art Museum is the oldest museum west of the Mississippi River, founded in 1885.  It has a rather nice permanent collection, many paintings from artists in the bay area and often hosts interesting exhibitions.  For a tourist, it’s good to know that you can easily take in the whole museum in an afternoon.

Sacramento is in an interesting place for eating out.  It is at the north end of California’s Central Valley, known as America’s Salad Bowl.  Thus there are many restaurants that feature “farm to fork” dining.  And if you have a bite or a drink near the Capitol, you’re very likely to be able to listen in as some politicos talk over the affairs of the day.

The crows come in at sunset.

We loved a particularly unique Sacramento experience.  Right at sundown every day, thousands of crows fly in from the fields surrounding the city.  They have predators outside the city but a lot less in town, so they congregate in the area around the Cathedral at 12th Street and K, not far from the Capitol.  For about five minutes each evening, a thick cloud of birds, cawing like mad, settle in on the roofs, trees and lampposts.  Then they shut up and go to sleep.


Maybe you think that all Italian wines come from Tuscany and the Piedmont.  You can find wine being made almost everywhere in Italy and the biggest wine producer is Sicily. If you decide to visit that island for wine tasting, make sure you also include history, art and food on your itinerary.  You might arrive on a cruise ship or on a ferry, but most likely you’ll fly in.  And in that case you’ll come into Palermo.  Before you head out to the vineyards, you ought to see what this city has to offer.

Now, Sicily generally and Palermo in particular have an image problem – the Mafia.  Yes, there were and still are gangsters in Palermo just like we have them in US cities.  In our travels, we never felt the heavy hand of the Mob.  People did tell us that most of that had been cleaned up.  It’s mostly the tourists who want to see the places they know from the Godfather or take a trip to the nearby town of Corleone.  If you’re a tourist and want to see those things, go right ahead.

The Teatro Massimo

But instead of remembering the fatal scene at the opera house, feast your eyes on the Teatro Massimo, the largest in all of Italy.  It’s a masterpiece of 19th century architecture inside and out.  Even if you don’t feel like taking in an opera, it’s the grandest hanging out and meeting place in Palermo.  So sit in one of the caffés around the perimeter of the piazza in front of the theatre, or loll on the steps with the younger Palermians or watch a political protest arrive.  You’ll feel very much a part of the scene.

Of course, you could go and see a grand performance.  A word of warning: Climate change being what it is, it stays hot in Sicily later in the year than in the past.  They didn’t install air conditioning in the Teatro Massimo, so be prepared to perspire more than a bit.

Just one of the Four Corners

Another sight not to miss in Palermo is the Four Quarters (or I Quattro Canti in Italian).  It’s a crossroads with massive sculptures and fountains on each corner.  They represent the kings who once reigned in Palermo and the city’s four patron saints.  Don’t stand in the middle to see them all; these are heavily trafficked streets.  But do wander about and take in each one in turn.

Palermo may be the street food capital of the world.  Wander through the back streets and markets and try a little of this or that.  Maybe it’s a good idea to ask what you’re about to eat before biting.  They make the most of every animal in Sicily.  We’re generally not big fans of tours, but you can find some street food tours that will take you everywhere and let you try everything (or at least everything you’d like to try).  But, oh, Sicilian pizza! And, ah, Sicilian gelati!  And especially, oh my, Sicilian rice balls (or arancini)!  Here they may be stuffed with meat and peas, or cheese, or tomatoes.  They’re coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  Have some – you’re too thin anyway!

Then head around the island and try the wine.


Toulouse is not a winemaking city.  It’s the center of France’s aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus there.  But it is surrounded by regions that do make wine, albeit not the most famous in France.  There’s Gaillac to the north, Madiran to the south and Minervoix, the best known, to the east.  It also has history and architecture and food, which makes it well worth visiting when you’re travelling for wine tasting.

The Romans called it Tolosa, and when the city of Rome was overrun by the Visigoths in 410 A.D., the Romans gave the invaders the southwest of France to get them to leave their city.  Toulouse was their capital as it was 800 years later for a large population of pre-Reformation heretics known as the Cathars.  These people were wiped out but the echoes of Catharism are still felt throughout the region.

Toulouse’s Capitole at night.

The current-day toulousains are justly proud of their history, but are more involved in 21st century living than in the past.  For the visitor, it is preferable to sit in their main square, the Place du Capitole, dominated on one side by a building that is part city hall and part opera house.  The other side of the square is lined with cafes, under broad umbrellas.  There you can sit and eat the local sausages, which are the envy of the rest of France, along with a bottle of local wine.

Grand buildings along the Garonne river.

Then take a stroll along the banks of the River Garonne, which starts in the Pyrenees and ends up in Bordeaux (you may have heard of their wines) before debouching into the Atlantic.  There are numerous grand buildings once erected by the elites, mostly in the 19th century.  Not far is what little is left of old Toulouse, since much of the city was destroyed in the many wars that beset the region.

The Canal du Midi begins in Toulouse and connects it with the Mediterranean.  Once a commercial waterway, the canal today is mostly navigated by tourists who get aboard the boats called péniches and visit the many picturesque villages along its banks.  If you don’t want an extended trip, you can take a tour that just goes around Toulouse’s part of the canal for a few hours or, as we did, take a day trip about 20 km. away and back.

You cannot visit Toulouse without indulging in its greatest contribution to French gastronomy: cassoulet.  Now the city’s claim to this dish is disputed by the people of the town of Castelnaudry along the canal to the east and the Gascons further north.  This hearty combination of white beans, confit de canard (duck) and the aforementioned Toulouse sausages has become available in many North American restaurants, but we can assure you that the real thing in the real place can’t be beat.

Power Tasting doesn’t usually get into restaurant reviews, but we have to tell you that we found that Restaurant Emil serves the best cassoulet in town.  Even more, you can buy a large can of it there, enough for dinner for two, put it in your suitcase and have it when the cold winds blow back at home.



Château de Chenonceau

There are many wonderful reasons to visit the Loire valley.  It’s close enough to Paris that you can make a day trip of a visit there.  For us wine enthusiasts, there’s Vouvray, Chinon, Sancerre and Muscadet to occupy our tasting hours.  Those wines go well with the Touraine cuisine (named after the central town of Tours).  And there’s the history, so much of it, best exemplified by the castles that line the river Loire and other streams nearby.

Photo courtesy of YouTube.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, French monarchs and nobles preferred to avoid the hoi polloi of Paris and so built magnificent châteaux from which they could both rule and enjoy themselves.  There are many to visit, including Chambord, Blois and Amboise.  If you only have the time to visit one, we recommend that it be the Château de Chenonceau.

You enter the grounds down a long allée of plane trees until, seeming suddenly, a fairy castle appears before you.  That’s the entrance to the château, where you can and should sign up for a tour, available in many languages including English.  A guide will show you around the rooms, point out some interesting information about the gardens and explain the history of Chenonceau.

The château that’s there today wasn’t the original.  That one was burned down and replaced by a nobleman in generally the form we see the front of it today in the early 16th century.  King Francois I seized it a few decades later.  His son, Henri II, set it aside as a love nest for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.  This didn’t much please his wife, Catherine de Medici, so she kicked out Diane and expanded the château to cross the river Cher.  [As you tour Chenonceau, you can see two gardens out the windows.  One was Diane’s, the other one Catherine’s.  The mistress got the better of the gardening competition.]

Because the château spans the river, it was used by Jews and other refugees from German-occupied France during the Second World War.  The Cher was the dividing line between the Nazis and Vichy France to the south.  Escapees would enter the front of the château and sneak out the back.

Photo courtesy of The Local France.

Perhaps the most unique and certainly the most romantic aspect of a visit to Chenonceau is to rent a little boat and row along the Cher, under the château.  There’s no other castle in all of Europe where you can do that!

The architecture of Chenonceau combines Gothic and Renaissance elements, so viewing it is another way you can experience history there.  Most of the rooms in the château are decorated so you can give yourself a sense of how royalty treated itself in the early Renaissance.  As Mel Brooks put it, it was good to be the king.  Now, of course, Chenonceau is a historic monument.  Wars and revolutions have not dimmed the elegance and attraction of this great castle.  Other than Versailles, it’s the most visited château in France.  When you are in the Loire valley for wine tasting, leave yourself some time for castling, too, especially at Chenonceau.



California’s Route 101

There are some fabled roads in America.  You can get your kicks on Route 66.  Ten cents won’t even shine your shoes on Broadway.  42nd Street is naughty, haughty, gaudy and sporty.  There are no songs about California’s portion of US Route 101.  It runs mostly south-north from Los Angeles through San Francisco all the way to the state border and up to Seattle.  Interstate 5 runs parallel to it and it’s much faster.  The Pacific Coast Highway is much prettier.

Map courtesy of MapQuest.

But if you want to be serious about wine tasting in California, at some point you’re going to deal with Route 101.  It is the main stem for almost every wine making area in the state, with the very notable exception of Napa Valley.  It will take you to Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, near to Monterey, and Sonoma County.  If America had a route des vins, this would be it.

As you drive north, you have the Pacific Ocean on your left and the mountains on your right.  Mostly you can’t see the ocean; take the pacific Coast Highway if that’s your objective, but be prepared to crawl through towns.  But you can see the sea for a while as you approach Santa Barbara.  Around Pismo Beach, Route 101 skirts the coast along some rather impressive cliffs.

The road heads inland through as you get to Paso Robles where, surprisingly, the mountains appear on your left.  Route 101 divides the vineyard areas of Paso Robles.  On the west side, in those mountains (well, maybe they’re just foothills at that point) are the artisanal wineries that have raised this region’s reputation.  On the left are the mass production vineyards: endless, endless vistas of vines.  There are some quality vineyards these days on the east side of Route 101, but if you’re driving through you are overwhelmed by the quantity.

As you get closer to San Francisco, the endless vista is brutally modernistic office buildings in Silicon Valley, followed by the dreary traffic from the airport to the city.  Then, suddenly, the highway disappears and you are on city streets.  Use your GPS or your roadmap because it will take you to an American legend, the Golden Gate Bridge.  If the weather is good, you will offer you a glorious view of the City by the Bay.  If that famous fog rolls in, you’ll just have to take it on faith that the city is still there.

Once over the bridge, you’ll soon come to Sonoma County and one wine tasting region after another.  Petaluma and the Green Valley.  Santa Rosa and the Russian River.  Windsor and the Alexander Valley nearby.  Healdsburg and Dry Creek.  It’s not that you can spend days there; you can spend years visiting Sonoma County and you won’t see it all, because it changes all the time.

You can keep going and find more vineyards, but if you’ve made it from Santa Barbara to Healdsburg, you’ve seen the best of the Route 101, in terms of wine tasting, anyway.  Maybe they should write a song about it.



California’s Central Coast

It is meaningful to say that you are visiting a specific area of Wine Country.  You don’t say, “We’re going to France for wine tasting”.  It’s too big and too varied, so you might say Bordeaux or Burgundy.  California is very large and varied as well, so you say Napa Valley or Sonoma County.  But if you say that you’re going wine tasting in California’s Central Coast, you’re covering an area so vast that it’s hard to say anything meaningful at all.

It’s more than 300 miles from Santa Barbara to Alameda County, the southern and northern extremes of the Central Coast.  Some AVAs are well established; they’ve been making wine in and around Santa Barbara since the days of the Spanish colonization.  Other areas have only recently realized that excellent wine can be made from grapes grown on their soil.  For instance, there have only been vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands since the 1970’s.  So let’s take an abbreviated tour up the coast.

  • Santa Barbara is a delightful little city, with many excellent hotels and restaurants. There’s no wine grown inside the city limits, of course, but many excellent wineries have tasting rooms there.  Many of the wines come from the nearby Santa Rita Hills.  Pinot Noir is THE grape of this area. (Chardonnay is grown everywhere on the Central Coast.)  We’ve been particularly impressed with Sanford and Au Bon Climat.

The Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley is renowned for its Pinot Noirs.  Photo courtesy of the Santa maria estate.

  • A little further north is what we consider to be the heart of the Central Coast, around Los Olivos and Santa Maria. These were relatively quiet little backwaters until they were popularized by the movie Sideways.  Even so, until recently they were rather bucolic but have recently become somewhat more “Napa-fied”, to coin a phrase.  Still, there are many excellent wineries to visit and wines to sample.  Favorites of ours are Foxen and Beckman.  Pinot Noir and Syrah are the leading grapes.
  • The San Luis Obispo region is coming on quickly, both in terms of the quality of the wines and its popularity for visitors. But SLO is not close to any of California’s major population centers.  For example, it’s four hours drive from San Francisco; the problem with hidden treasures is that they’re hidden.  We’ve enjoyed wines from Alban and Laetitia.  Pinot Noir is strong here but Rhône style wines are really the San Luis Obispo success story.

Downtown Paso Robles has become quite trendy.  Photo courtesy of

  • Paso Robles is far enough from San Francisco to be far and close enough for a visit to be feasible. The west side of Route 101 is known for very large commercial wineries.  The east side is hillier and home to many artisanal winemakers.  Tablas Creek (our favorite) introduced Rhône grapes to the region, but Paso Robles is still known for powerful Zinfandels.
  • There are some wineries to visit in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but most of the tasting is in Monterey. Look for robust Pinot Noirs here, such as Hahn or Pisani.  The beauty of the overall scenery around Monterey is world famous.
  • Finally, in the area around Silicon Valley you’ll find quite a few wineries, but not as many that earn top marks. What was once fruit trees, ranches and vineyards is now mostly office buildings where the world’s technology is invented.  Nonetheless, we were delighted to discover the Pinot Noirs of Testarossa in this area.

The Russian River and Its Bridges

Long before the Russian River became synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was a river…and of course it still is.  As the Russian River approaches the Pacific through Sonoma County, it is quite a beautiful river, at that.  It begins in Mendocino County and flows south, flowing pretty much along Route 101 (or vice versa, we suppose). As it enters Sonoma County, the river runs between Route 101 and Route 128, the main drag of Alexander Valley.  At Chalk Hill, it hangs a right and proceeds southwest to the ocean.  For those who come to Sonoma County for wine tasting and would like to do some touring as well, it’s this last stretch of the Russian River that’s the place to visit.

If you proceed south down Westside Road, you can catch occasional glimpses of the river, although you may be more attentive to the wineries that are there.  As Westside turns west and becomes River Road, you’ll see and pass over the river often.  In fact, it is the bridges that are for us the main attraction.

Wohler Bridge.  Photo courtesy of  We recommend this site for a virtual tour of Russian River’s bridges.

One of these is the Wohler Bridge, where Wohler Road crosses to meet Westside Road.  It looks pretty rickety, but it must be pretty secure since it’s been there for 100 years.  It’s a one-lane bridge so you have to be careful that no one is coming the other way before you cross it.  Also be on the lookout for tourists (they could be us) having their picture taken while standing next to the bridge.  Nearby wineries include Gary Farrell, Moshin and Rochioli.

Hacienda Bridge.  Photo courtesy of

The Hacienda Bridge is at the point at which River Road merges with Westside Road.  You may see swimmers or boaters in the water.  We’ve always been there for the purposes of wine tasting, so we’ve never dived in ourselves.  There are many resorts in this area as well.  Korbel and Porter Bass are wineries in this area.

It’s likely you’ll want to visit in nice weather, which is a generally good idea.  It’s particularly important for the Russian River.  That pleasant waterway, well used for boating, rafting and swimming, can become a raging torrent in the winter months.  Flooding occurs frequently, roughly every other year since 1940, according to the San Jose Mercury.  There’s a lot to be said for going wine tasting in winter, but it’s probably not a good idea to plan on an excursion along the Russian River.


Visiting France, Visiting California

If you, like us, are from the East Coast, getting to either California or France is roughly the same hassle.  Once you have to get to the airport and wait for your plane, the difference between a six-hour and an eight-hour flight is not all that big a deal.  However, when you get off the plane in California, you’re still in the USA.  Everybody speaks your language and most things, aside from the vineyards, are just like home.  You can’t say that about a trip to France.

If the only purpose of your trip is wine tasting, the overall experiences of the two sectors of Wine Country are roughly equivalent.  The most famous regions – Napa/Noma, Burgundy, Paso Robles, Bordeaux, Santa Barbara, the Rhone Valley – will offer you many wines you might have heard of, if not already tasted.  While California has some out-of-the-way wine producing areas, such as Temecula or Amador County, wine is made almost everywhere in France.  And some of the less familiar locales, including Alsace, Beaujolais and the Languedoc, make world-class wines.

Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France.

It’s when you want to do something other than tasting wine tasting that France excels.  Yes, we love San Francisco and Los Angeles but they’re not Paris or Lyon.  There are few if any California experiences that can top a stroll along the Seine or eating onion soup at a sidewalk café.  Of course, it helps if you can speak French but honestly, it’s not essential.  Most French people can and will speak English.  They have the reputation for being arrogant and snobbish (as do New Yorkers) but we’ve never experienced any problems. (The nose in the air attitude of Parisian waiters is as much a part of the show as anything else.)

The Big Sur.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

California and France both have attractions when it comes to natural beauty.  There’s an unmistakable charm to the French countryside. The grandeur of some parts of California are matchless.  The French Alps are stunning and Big Sur, Yosemite and the redwood forests are treasures.  Centuries of wars have left scars across France; earthquakes and fires have done the same in California.  If you’re travelling to see marvelous scenery (in addition to wine tasting, of course) both will offer you more than you can take in on any one trip.

You can get memorable meals in California.  French Laundry and Spago are temples of gastronomy.  But France!  Yes, the French are justly famous (or infamous) for small portions of unknown ingredients with rich sauces.  But there’s hardly a village in the whole country where you can’t get a perfectly roasted chicken that you’ll remember forever.  We mentioned onion soup, but did we tell you about pâté?  Or cheese?  Or cassoulet?  Or, or, or?  On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for Mexican, Chinese or Japanese cuisine you’re going to do much better in California.

Altogether, it’s an individual decision as to which makes a more desirable vacation.  If you feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings, choose California.  If you like the exotic, France is a better choice.  We’re in the latter category, but then we speak French.  Either direction, you’ll taste great wines.