Bad Wine

The rationale for wine tasting as an avocation is – of course – that you get a chance to try a lot of really good wines.  Sometimes when we enter a winery’s tasting room, we know we are going to taste something delicious or at least interesting.  Often, when we’re visiting a winery for the first time, we may not know what to expect, but we have every reason to be excited about trying something new.  And a few times, we’ve been disappointed with the wines we’ve tasted.

But there have been rare occasions when we’ve been handed a glass of really bad wine.  That’s not the same as wine we didn’t like.  We’re talking about wine that has been poorly made, bottled or stored.

The most common cause of spoilage is corked wine.  This is not really the fault of the winemaker but rather of the company that sold corks to the winery.  In growing or preparing the corks, a grower may have unintentionally introduced a chemical known scientifically as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (or more usefully, as TCA).  From the moment that cork is put in the bottle, the wine in it will taste corked.

A wine testing lab.  Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

We were once at a winery that prides itself on their scientific approach to winemaking.  We even got to see their lab where people in white coats were doing something that looked like high school chem lab to us.  When they poured our first taste it was immediately apparent that the Chardonnay smelled and tasted like wet cardboard.  (Some people say it’s wet dog, but let’s not go there.)  The server was at first surprised and then abashed, but truly it was her fault.  She should have tasted the wine first before pouring it.  Maybe she did and didn’t recognize that the bottle was spoiled, which is even worse.

Consumers should be on the watch for cork taint.  If you find it at a tasting room or at home, bring it to the winery’s attention.  Many corks have identifiers so that the winery can tell who had sold them the faulty corks.

Another common fault in wines you might taste is called brettanomyces, or brett.  This is a type of yeast.  Since yeasts are an essential ingredient in making wine, some funky yeasts are bound on occasion to sneak in.  However, in some cases brett is considered a feature, not a flaw.  This yeast produces an aroma and taste that is generally referred to as “barnyard” in polite company.  In rude company it’s called…well, never mind.  There are some wine lovers who find a bit of this taste to be admirable, especially in Pinot Noirs from Burgundy in particular.

For the record, we’re not brett fans.  A little is bad and even Burgundians know that a lot isn’t good.  If you find it in a bottle opened at a winery, bring it to management’s attention right away.  When it happens in a wine opened at home, a reputable wine seller should exchange a purchase.

The point is not to play wine detective looking for bad bottles.  They are rare enough that most people only rarely encounter one.  We have seen some people who were evidently unaware of what bad wine smells and tastes like, finish a bottle and not understand why they didn’t like it.  That’s why a sommelier takes a sip of our wine and let’s us try it before serving it.  There’s no reason to drink bad wine…Life is too short !

Visiting Saint-Chinian

The Languedoc is a big place, ranging from France’s Spanish border to the south, wrapping around to the doorstep of Provence to the east.  Approximately in the middle is the village (and appellation) of Saint-Chinian.  (We Americans would spell it St. Chinian.)  It’s a sweet little town that exists in its current form because of the wine trade.  As pointed out elsewhere in this edition, Saint-Chinian makes good but not great wine (that we’ve tasted), so it doesn’t have the lushness and wealth of, say, St. Emilion or Beaune or, for that matter, Healdsburg.

What it has is a sense of French-ness, or better yet Southern French-ness.  Add to it that Saint-Chinian is a typical rural market town and it all makes being there worth experiencing. As you arrive or leave, be sure to take in the ravishing views.  Saint-Chinian sits at the edge of a mountain range (well, hills really).  There’s a real difference between the stony wines in the hills and the softer ones from the valley, which becomes apparent as you drive through. There’s one main street leading in, the D177, that leads into another main street, the D612, that goes out to the vineyards.  In the French naming system, a D-road means Départementale (or regional, in English), which means it’s not much more than a two-way street, so expect to go slow.

The village of Saint-Chinian sits at the foot of a range of small mountains.

Going slow seems to be a way of life in Saint-Chinian.  The only time you’ll see any bustle is on market days, Sundays and Thursdays.  Then the stalls and trucks fill the main square and people come from miles around to shop, socialize, argue (it is France, after all), have a cup of coffee and generally hang out.  There are marchés in many of the nearby villages, but Saint-Chinian draws people from those areas because of its size and perhaps because of the quality of the items for sale.

Selling tablecloths and carpets at the Saint-Chinian marché

Sure, there are fruits and vegetables and, depending on the season, you’ll find the same ones as at home (only better) and then some you can’t find back there, like the late summer mirabelles.  But then there’s a truck selling roast chickens just made right there in the seller’s rotisserie.  And another with a big pan of paella, ready to eat or for dinner.  And salamis.  And sausages.  And, mon Dieu, there are cheeses.  There are also housewares, including the fellow selling mats and tablecloths that we couldn’t resist.

After the market, you can head home and eat what you’ve bought.  But if you’re a tourist, you don’t have a home to go to.  So you just amble down the street to a café.  If the weather is good (and it usually is) you sit under a tree and eat an omelette or a plate of local charcuterie, with a glass of a Saint-Chinian wine, of course.

From there, you can be at the wineries and their surrounding vineyards in five minutes’ drive.  But you might just choose to relax in town and go wine tasting tomorrow.

Wine Tasting Amenities

Wineries are in several businesses.  Of course, their basic business is making and selling wine.  In this regard, their competition is other beverages, from soda pop through whiskey.  Mostly it’s alcoholic beverages consumed in a social setting, with beer brewers their primary competition as an industry.

They also make a substantial amount of money from wine tasting, which is Power Tasting’s subject.  Wineries are in the business of tourism, which is why we now see so many resorts opening in Wine Country.

So when we wine aficionados go wine tasting, we are certainly drawn to specific wineries by the quality of the wine being served.  To a very great extent, we also choose one winery to visit over another based on the overall experience we expect to have there.  Beyond the wine, we are attracted to the obvious big things: location, architecture and other attractions, such as art or panoramic views.

The tasting room at Louis M. Martini winery.

At a much more subtle level, the various amenities offered by a winery make a great deal of difference to the way we feel as we remember our experiences and plan to return.  The first and ultimately the most important is the personal interaction we have with the servers and other employees.  They should make a visitor feel more like a guest than a customer.    No one wants to feel looked down upon or intimidated. To our experience most do a good job of hospitality, but we have experienced some notable exceptions.  We have never returned to those places.

A tasting room should express the personality of the owners.  As more and more winemakers are taken over by big corporations, the tasting rooms have become visitor centers, located in palatial buildings that feel more like show rooms than friendly places to gather and sip.

If the owners collect art or horses or musical instruments or race car paraphernalia, they should share their collections with their guests.  Equally, the more humble wineries that are extensions of farms (which is all a vineyard is) should be rustic without being shabby.

At the most elemental level, wineries should show consideration for their guests no differently than each of us would do in welcoming friends into our homes.  The tasting rooms should be clean and tidy.  Double that for the bathrooms.  We appreciate shady places to park.  If there is bar service, there should be a place to sit if one wants to.  There should be accommodation for those with mobility issues.  Some sunlight is always appreciated as well as a view of the vines or the town, depending on location.

The little things add up, often in a subliminal manner.  Wine tasting venues in our times is about entertainment almost as much as wine.  Serving wine in the barn on a plank and two barrels might have been the way things were done 50 years ago, but in those days the wineries weren’t charging you to sip their wines nor selling their products for three-figure prices. Most winery owners understand that the experience is a part of their business model.  The others need to catch up.

Winery Glassware

As we wrote quite a few years ago, there was once a time that wineries gave away souvenir glasses if you stopped by and had a taste of their wines.  In fact, their tastings were free, too!  (And still are in a few places, believe it or not.)  We’re reminded of this because we recently got rid of nearly all of the glasses we had collected on wine tasting trips over the years.  Most of them were tiny and thick and we had too many; we don’t know why we kept them, except for the memories.  A few were of high quality and we kept those, because…well, just because.

But it caused us to give some thought to the role glassware plays in the wine tasting experience.

Photo courtesy of Kendall-Jackson.

In some ways, the quality of the glasses is indicative of the winery owners’ perception of their wine and their customers.  There are still some who serve tastings in small, clunky glasses.  Maybe they just don’t care, or think their customers don’t care or that they couldn’t tell the difference anyway.  Our experience is that many – certainly not all – people we meet in tasting rooms are reasonably familiar with wine and would appreciate a better glass.

At the other extreme, we’ve been finding some really fine glasses in some tasting rooms.  They have copious bowls, no lip (that little bulge you sometime find) at all on the edge of the glass, thin stems and a great feel in your hand.  If you turn the base of the glass slowly in the right light, you may find the mark of an Austrian or German glassmaker, such as Reidel, Spiegelau or Schott Zweizel.  These wineries make, or at least think they make, great wine that deserve great glasses.

But does it really make a difference?  Actually, yes it does.  A glass with the room to swirl the wine will open up the aromas in a way that a poorer glass cannot do.  And your ability to stick your nose in the glass as you sip will enhance your wine tasting enjoyment as well.  There is a sensual pleasure to holding a well-balanced wine glass that you can only understand if you can compare it with the other kind.  That’s why you don’t serve fine wine in jelly jars.

What if you don’t have exceptional wine glasses at home?  Will it make a difference to the wine if you buy some and take it home?  Not exactly.  But wine glasses are part of the allure of wine tasting.  So enjoy those fine glasses while you’re there!

Many of the gift shops at wineries will sell you their engraved glasses.  If your intent is to have a souvenir of your trip, by all means go ahead.  But if you are looking for quality glasses for your home, there are much better values to be had in the stores and on the internet.

And at the end of the day, if someone offers us Château Petrus in a plastic cup, we’ll be happy to take it.

Drinking with the Locals

One of the basic tenets we follow at Power Tasting is that we go to taste wine, not drink it and certainly not drink it to excess.  In our travels, we have met some people in tasting rooms who have failed to follow that rule and they were the worse for it.  But if you pace yourself, have breakfast and a hearty lunch, you may from time to time allow yourself what the French call an aperitif and the Italians an apertivo. (In the United States, we just call it a drink after work.)

One of the pleasures of an aperitif in Wine Country is that if you choose the right place to have one, you get to share the space and the experience with the people of the area.  You can just go to the first bar you come across.  If it has a bright neon sign in the window advertising Budweiser, you probably won’t be sipping a delicate Chardonnay.  But you very well might get a pint of one of the brews made in the area and that can be a pleasure too.  And you might be drinking next to the fellows who till the vineyards and pick the grapes that you’ve been trying that day.  If you don’t recognize the names of the ales on draft, ask the person next to you at the bar.  The worst that can happen is he’ll ignore you; the best is that you get to meet someone who’s in the know.

Willi’s in Healdsburg, a great place to meet local folks. Photo courtesy of USA Restaurants.

Many times we’ve taken a glass of wine before dinner at a restaurant other than the one we plan to dine in.  It’s a way to get to see more gathering spots and in some cases to familiarize yourself with the ambience of a restaurant before trying it for a meal.  You may be seated next to other tourists or you may get to meet the people who make the local wines.  If the latter, keep a polite eye on what they’re drinking.  It’s probably not their own because they are surrounded by it all day.  You can learn a lot from what the knowledgeable people of the area are having.

Strolling around the Piazza del Campo in Sienna.

The best way, by far, to enjoy an aperitif is to take it at a café in France or on a piazza in Italy.  We remember with much warmth sitting under the plane trees in front of the Bar Central in a tiny village surrounded by vines, while the piped music played French (and Quebecois) songs while the businesspeople and shopkeepers stopped by for a pastis or a glass of whatever was just growing a mile away.

Or watching the sun decline over the rooftops and steeples surrounding the big piazza that’s in every Italian town.  Half the town would take a glass with us, in order to watch the other half of the population indulge in what they call the passeggiata.  That’s just a walk around the square but it’s so much more.  It’s a chance to see the locals enjoying who’s out and about and to be seen being out and about.

Ah, yes, it must be 5 o’clock somewhere.

Tasting Sauvignon Blanc

A few issues back we discussed  Pinot Noir Tasting.  That was supposed to be a one-off, because that grape is so ubiquitous and yet so different as you traverse Wine Country.  Then we thought about Syrah.  So we at Power Tasting decided to make a new series, investigating wine tasting from the perspective of different varietals.

We have often experienced tastes of Sauvignon Blanc as the first offering on any given California winery’s tasting list for the day.  To be honest, it’s not our favorite, but what are we supposed to do when a nice server just puts a glass of it in our hands as we walk into the tasting room?  For the most part, California winemakers tend to favor very fruity Sauvignon Blancs. Maybe too much so, in our opinion, so we tend to dismiss wines made from those grapes.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes.  Photo courtesy of the Wine Institute.

Now, it’s not that we never buy or enjoy California Sauvignon Blancs.  We enjoy Dry Creek Vineyard’s version on hot summer days and Robert Mondavi’s all year long (except they call it Fumé Blanc).  If that were all there were to it, we’d consider these wines pleasant pastimes, but nothing to take seriously.

Our mistake.

Sauvignon Blanc has such a different character in France (or really, multiple characters) that it’s hard to recognize French wines made from that grape as being related to their California cousins.  Let’s start in the Loire valley, where Sancerre is as austere (almost to the point of sourness) as California Sauvignon is fruit-forward (almost to the point of sweetness).  For many people, Sancerre is the wine of choice to match the brininess of raw oysters, totally unlike any California Sauvignon Blancs.

The French do make things confusing, though.  Another widely popular Loire wine is Vouvray, but it’s made from Chenin Blanc.  And then there’s Pouilly Fumé from the Loire, which is Sauvignon Blanc and Pouilly Fuissé from Burgundy, which isn’t.   (It’s Chardonnay.)

In Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the two primary grapes in Sauternes.  (The other is Semillon.)  In this case, the wines aren’t almost sweet; they’re very decidedly honeyed.

Shriveled grapes to be made into Sauternes wine.  Photo courtesy of Winetraveler.

There’s nothing quite like wine tasting in the Sauternes region, which also includes the village of Barsac.  It’s a day spent drinking dessert.  The grapes aren’t as pretty; they’re all shriveled by the botrytis fungus that concentrates the sugars and adds an indescribable sensation to the taste of the wine.  But the castles and the grand châteaux are wonderful and the food is delicious.

In Italy, they make wine from Sauvignon Blanc all over the country, especially in the northeastern part, but they just call the grape Sauvignon.  Frankly, they’re not the white wines that Italy is famous for.

They are famous for Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, where we’ve visited but not had the chance to go wine tasting.  The Kiwi white wines are also very (maybe two very’s) fruit forward, the fruits in question often being citrus and pineapple.  These wines are not to everyone’s taste, but they certainly put New Zealand on the map of Wine Country, so that’s something to be proud of.

A little fruity, a lot fruity, maybe sour, definitely sweet.  That’s some grape, Sauvignon Blanc!


Tasting Syrah

The Syrah grape is ubiquitous.  It originated in ancient Persia, around 4,500 years ago, according to archaeologists, in the region that now contains the city of Shiraz.  And indeed, some wines made from the grape are still called Shiraz.  It is now grown in France, mostly in the Rhône valley and the Languedoc.  You’ll find it in California, especially in the Central Coast.  It is a primary grape in Australian wines (where they call it Shiraz) with the center of production in the Barossa region.

We were first introduced to Syrah many years ago, when traveling in abroad.  Some Aussie blokes we knew gave us a glass of Oxford Landing Shiraz.  At that early stage of our wine tasting education, red wine meant Cabernet Sauvignon and nothing but.  So our first reaction to this glass was that there was something wrong with the wine.  But it wasn’t sour; it didn’t taste bad.  It was just different.  This was a wine tasting epiphany!  Oxford Landing is a mass production wine and we’ve had many better Syrahs since then, but that first one has never been forgotten.

Syrah grapes. Photo courtesy of Banfi Wines.

One part of that experience still rings true: Syrah is different.  Sometimes it’s a deep, dark wine that goes with roast beef.  California’s Darioush winery makes wine like this.  (The founder is of Iranian descent and calls it Shiraz.)  Others are lighter and can accompany chicken or pasta.  You just can’t tell until you taste.

Syrah is the primary grape of the Northern Rhône.  Wines from Cornas must be 100% Syrah and it is central to most of the other wines of the region.  There’s plenty of depth in these wines but there is also a notable acidity.  As we have gone wine tasting in the Northern Rhône, we’ve been surprised at how notably acidic some of the wines are, especially those we tasted at Cave Yves Cuilleron.  Of course, acidity is a good thing in wine; no complaints, we’re just noting the difference.

There’s plenty of Syrah grown in the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc, where it is generally blended with Grenache and other grapes.  Blends are the rule for AOC-denominated wines, so single varietal wines from the region are marked as IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) or VdP (Vin de Pays).  When you can taste the full varietal character in the southern regions, there is often a note that the locals call garrigue, the scrubby vegetation that grows along the hillsides with some flavors of rosemary.

California’s Central Coast makes Syrahs that are fruit bombs with way over-the-top alcohol levels. Sometimes we call those “chewy” wines.  In general, Syrah likes warm weather but the heat of the Central Coast really pumps up the sugar, which in turn becomes alcohol.  The Syrahs in the Napa/Noma area tend to be mellower, though still on the deep end.

They grow more Shiraz in Australia than any other grape, and the wines tend to be big and sunny, which brings us full circle back to that first glass.  The point of this round-the-world Syrah trip is that you never know what you’re going to get when you first taste a Syrah.  Big and bold, lighter and acidic, punchy and alcoholic, open and herbal – they’re all the same grape, but not the same terroir, not the same winemaker.

So when you travel for wine tasting, be prepared for something different, whenever they offer you a Syrah.

Pinot Noir Tasting

Our experience with Pinot Noir has been rather strange.  For a long time, we just didn’t care for wines made from this grape.  Too thin.  Too acid.  Too pricy.  We would continue tasting Pinot Noirs in our travels but we never got that kick that lovers of Burgundy wines have written and talked about.  Then on one wine tasting trip about a decade ago, the light bulb came on.

Pinot Noir grapes.  Photo courtesy of LaCrema winery.

We were in the Carneros region of Napa Valley at the Etude winery.  They’re equally well-known for their Cabernet Sauvignons as for their Pinot Noirs, so it was our intent to savor the big California boomers.  Since Pinot Noir was included in the tasting, why not try it?  That was the moment that changed everything; we became club members from that moment and still are.

On that trip and since then, we have been all over Carneros and have found many other wineries specializing in Pinot Noir.  Saintsbury and Domaine Carneros (yes, the same maker of California sparkling) are particular favorites.  But we have expanded our horizons.  We were dining at the late, lamented Hurley’s restaurant in Yountville and they had a weekly special wine from a place we’d never heard of, Santa Lucia Highlands.  Another aha moment and we’ve been buying wines from there ever since.

We’ve enjoyed Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills near Santa Barbara, from Russian River and Sebastopol in Sonoma County, and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  We enjoyed them in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or quite a while ago, but then seemingly lost our taste for them (and regained it, too).  To this day, we prefer California Pinot Noirs to the originals from France.  That may have something to do with the astronomical prices for grand cru Burgundies.

So were we wrong in the days when Pinot Noir didn’t appeal to us?  Not really, but did our taste change or did the wines?  To this day, we find some very well-regarded wines from Russian River and Green Valley in Sonoma County to be thin, acid and overpriced, just as we did in the past.  As you can read in our opening statement on Power Tasting’s front page, tasters need to know what they like.  That implies that we need to know what we don’t like, as well.

In general, we go for more robust Pinot Noirs, so some wine educators have told us that we want wines made for Bordeaux drinkers.  There’s probably a little truth in that, but we think it misses the point.  There are Cabernet Sauvignons that we don’t care for (and Syrahs, and Chardonnays, and Tempranillos and, and, and…) and many others that we love.  We always appreciate well-made wines that respect the nature of the grapes and reflect the hand of capable winemakers.

We don’t want a Pinot Noir that’s like a Cabernet Sauvignon.  We like Pinot Noirs that show the complexity of the grape, with subtle aromas and some deep notes that accompany the overall roundness that Pinot Noir can achieve.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Visiting Sonoma County

For many bygone years, a wine tasting trip in California meant travelling to Napa Valley.  Oh, we knew there were vineyards on the other side of the Mayacamas range in Sonoma County.  And occasionally we’d drive over the Oakville Grade and emerge on Route 12 in the Sonoma Valley region.  We’d visit a few nearby wineries and then scamper back to the familiarity of Napa Valley.  No disrespect to Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn or Arrowood (our most frequent Route 12 visits) but we were missing an awful lot of what Sonoma County has to offer the wine enthusiast.

In the late ‘90’s we decided to dedicate an entire trip to Sonoma County.  It was very different then, much more rustic with simple wineries and not many places to eat.  Even though the main road is a highway (Route 101), Sonoma County’s Wine Country is vast.  Not knowing where we were going nor what we liked, we spent a lot of time driving from one winery we had heard something about to another and wasting a lot of time getting from place to place.

The view in front of the Stonestreet winery in Alexander Valley.

We’ve learned that the smartest plan is to visit one region per day.  Fortunately, there is a fairly consistent mapping of grape varietals with specific regions, so we have a good idea of the type of wine we’d be trying each day.  For example, Sonoma Valley was and is all about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and so are Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley.  If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, you should head straight to Russian River and Green Valley.  And while you’ll find Zinfandel everywhere, they specialize in it in Dry Creek and Rockpile.  Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are everywhere.

Old Zinfandel vines in Dry Creek Valley.

There are three towns where you’ll find most of the restaurants and hotels: Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.  If you did nothing but visit the main squares in each, and sip in the tasting rooms there, you’d have a pretty nice visit to Sonoma County.  All the same, we recommend that you get out into the countryside.

There are still plenty of wineries that are reminders of the way the county used to be.  They’re small, out of the way and their tasting rooms are nothing fancy.  Some have wines that are probably not worth being on the top of your list, but we have chanced upon more than a few that have been favorites of ours for many years.  It’s a good idea occasionally to let serendipity be your guide and try some wines you’ve never heard of.

At the other extreme, there are quite a few wineries in Sonoma County that have deservedly great reputations and should be considered for your visit.  Among these are Jordan, Verité, Rochioli, Martinelli, Ridge and Chalk Hill (including their Chardonnay).  Even before the pandemic, may of these were by appointment only, so check before you go.

Sonoma County may have once been Napa Valley’s little brother (at least in the opinion of the Napans).  In no way is that true today.  You can taste, dine, sleep and tour just as well in both these sectors of Wine Country.  There are many similarities, which is why we term them both together as Napa/Noma.  But Sonoma has a distinct personality in its wine, geography and attitude.  It’s a destination in itself.

The Experience of Wine Tasting in Bordeaux and Napa Valley

It’s impossible to draw meaningful comparisons between wine tasting in France and California.  They’re both too large with too many wine growing regions to be able to say anything about one place without having a counterexample from another.  So let’s narrow the scope of the comparison to the two premier winemaking regions in each.  That would be Napa Valley and Bordeaux, although the people of Burgundy might make a claim as well.

We suppose that there were people who traveled to both regions for wine tasting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can only speak to the wine tasting experiences of the last quarter of the 20th century onward.

Let’s stipulate a few differences up front.  They speak French in Bordeaux; their history goes back thousands of years and the restaurants all serve French food.  In Napa Valley, they speak English (and a lot of Spanish); the history there is hundreds of years old and the restaurants there serve cuisines from all around the world.

Château Palmer in Margaux, in the Medoc.  Photo courtesy of The Drinks Business.

Both are beautiful, but in different ways.  Napa Valley has a broad lowland with mountain ranges on both sides.  Bordeaux has three major vineyard areas: Macon on the left bank of the Garonne River, Pomerol/St. Emilion on the right bank and Graves/Sauternes south of the city of Bordeaux.  It’s easy to drive the length of Napa Valley in a few hours.  You need a few days to see all of Bordeaux.

Franciscan winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley.

Napa Valley’s wineries have evolved from farmhouses to what we term Napa Palaces.  In Bordeaux they have real palaces, or at least châteaux.  There are few if any rustic wineries left in Napa Valley.  In Bordeaux many of the smaller producers don’t have the magnificent castles that the famous names have, although they all seem to call themselves Château This or Domaine That.

In our earliest travels to both, it was a simple matter of driving up to a winery and asking for a taste of their wines.  If money ever changed hands it was only a few dollars; in Napa Valley they would throw in a free glass.  There are still some places where walk-in tastings are available in Napa Valley.  Those in Bordeaux are generally lower quality houses, mostly in the town of St. Emilion.  The better Bordeaux tastings have long since been by appointment only.  This trend was apparent in Napa Valley too, prior to the pandemic.  Now it’s more of a general rule.

In Bordeaux, a tasting means blends featuring either Cabernet Sauvignon (Macon and Graves) or Merlot (St. Emilion).  There are some whites, most based on Semillon grapes.  Napa Valley tastings offer much greater variety: all the Bordeaux grapes, and those of Burgundy and the Rhône.

The wineries in Napa Valley are closer to one another.  You can easily visit five or six wineries and not travel more than a mile.  That’s just not the case in Bordeaux.  On the other hand, traffic is much worse in Napa Valley (especially on Route 29) than on the main roads in Bordeaux.

So finally, which region makes better wine?  That’s a question often debated at our dinner table and it has not yet been resolved.  You’d better decide for yourself.