Let’s suppose that you are in Paris, perhaps on business.  You have no time to leave the city, so even though you’re in France, you will have no opportunity to go wine tasting.  You have that old “so near but so far feeling”.  Fear not, redemption is at hand.

We’d like to point out to you a chain of restaurants called L’Ecluse (http://www.lecluse-restaurant-paris.com), which means the lock, as in a lock on a canal.  (To be honest, we only tried the L’Ecluse alongside the Madeleine church in the 8th Arrondissment.  There are also sister locations in on rue Francois 1ier also in the 8th, St. Honoré in the 1st, in the 17th not far from the Arc de Triomphe, and along the Seine in the 6th.)


L’Ecluse restaurant, near the Madeleine in Paris

We at Power Tasting are not in the business of restaurant reviews, so we will only note that you can get a meal at L’Ecluse from a limited menu long on Bordelais cuisine, especially sausages and patés.  In nice weather, you can sit outside, which is generally a pleasure anywhere in Paris and particularly so in the better neighborhoods.  All the L’Ecluse restaurants are in better neighborhoods.

The reason for avid wine tasters to go to these restaurants is the wine.  If you love Bordeaux wines (and which wine lover does not?) this is your chance for sampling a wide variety of wines from that region while still in Paris.  What part of Bordeaux do you like the best?  Margaux?  Got it?  Paulliac? Got it.  St. Emilion? Got it.  Get it?

Perhaps the most fun is to try wines from sectors you’re not as familiar with, such as Lalande Pomerol or Listrac.  The good news, especially if you’re visiting as a couple, is to try a few things previously unknown to you and then follow them up with your favorites.  We noticed something interesting: we each ordered wines we particularly liked, shared sips and found that we liked what the other had chosen better.  Isn’t that what wine tasting is all about?

Not sure what to order?  You’ll find the manager (more so than the wait staff) very knowledgeable and willing to listen to you (in English or French), find out your tastes and try to match them.

As stated, we don’t do restaurant reviews.  But here’s a tip.  If you do visit L’Ecluse and if you do have a meal, finish it off with the chocolate ganache and ask for advice on the best Sauternes to go with it.  Believe us, you’ll remember the experience.




Vineyard Beauty

Something there is that loves a vine.

As we have traveled throughout Wine Country, around the world, we always feel a little thrill when we see vineyards.  As we’re driving closer to grape-growing areas, the first to spot some vines growing in the distance will point them out and both our hearts will expand a little in our chests.  The sight of the orderly rows of grape vines marching in orderly rows across a valley or a hillside, like an army of benevolent green soldiers.   Seeing the vineyards adds enormously, for us, to the pleasure of going wine tasting.

The beauty is even more enticing in harvest season, when the leaves are pruned back and the ripe fruit is hanging from the vines.  (Don’t tell anyone, but we have been known to sneak up on some unsuspecting vines and taken a few grapes.  There’s nothing like the sweetness of these grapes just before they are turned into wine.)  It is hard to count the number of photos we have of big, juicy clusters just hours before the crush.

img_2415Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon, almost ready to pick

What is it about the vines?  We are no farmers although we have read a few books about the agricultural aspects of wine production.  Of trellises, pruning and irrigation we know virtually nothing, so we bring only the amateur’s eyes to our visits.  All we can says is that looking at the sun glistening off seemingly endless rows of vines gives us a jolt of joy.


By way of comparison, there are times when we go wine tasting and don’t see vines at all.  In some cases, that’s because we might be visiting tasting rooms in a town.  This is mostly the case in California where wineries that cannot afford to build a palatial “visitors center” take a storefront in, say, Paso Robles, Calistoga or Healdsburg.  (See our previous article on tasting in Napa Town.)  There is a certain charm to wandering from one winery’s offerings to another and another.  There is also the advantage of not having to get behind the wheel of a car, if we are staying in that town.  And while it was once the case that only subpar wineries had in-town tasting rooms, that is not universally the case anymore.  But without the sight of vineyards just outside, there is definitely the sense that something is missing.

That sensation is certainly multiplied when the wineries are far from the fields and the tasting rooms are in the industrial buildings where trucked-in grapes are crushed and aged.  The total dissociation of wine from nature, no matter how good the wine is, leaves a rather empty feeling inside us.

And that is really the point: Wine tasting at its best combines product and place.  You just cannot really understand Burgundy, in our opinion, unless you’ve seen Burgundy.  Of course, the same applies to all of Wine Country.  Wine tasting should engage all the senses, not just taste and smell, and the emotional attachment to the land is a factor in the passion for wine that almost every winemaker speaks of.  Call it terroir, if you please, but actually seeing the soil and the sky and the vines where the stuff in the bottle actually come from adds enormously to the pleasure of the experience of wine tasting.

Sbragia Family Vineyards

At the very end of the Dry Creek Valley, just before Dry Creek Road peters out, perched on a high cliff, is Sbragia Family Vineyards.  It is just about the northernmost winery in Dry Creek so it’s a bit of a drive.  Because Sbragia Family sits athwart the closure of the fault line that created Dry Creek Valley, you will be rewarded with one of the most dramatic views in Sonoma’s Wine Country.

The winery itself is sleek, modern but not overly showy.  The interior is a typical tasting room, with a wide bar and, unusually, some scattered tables where you can actually sit and enjoy your tastes.  The colors in the room are somber, giving the overall experience a somewhat more intimate feeling than is often the case in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, especially in tasting rooms as large as this one.

But you’ll want to take your glasses out to the spacious terrace.  There you’ll look straight down Dry Creek Valley.  You can’t see San Francisco Bay from there, but your imagination will try to fill it in.  Often, when you see aerial photos of vineyards the pictures have been taken from an airplane.  Not at Sbragia Family.  The picture below, courtesy of the winery, gives only a hint of what it’s like to see it with your own eyes.

sbragiaPhoto courtesy of Sbragia Family Vineyards

Of course, all that scenic beauty would be for naught if the wine was no good.  You can rest easy on that point.  The wine tasting itself has some special attractions, beginning with Ed Sbragia himself.  As chief winemaker at Beringer in St. Helena he took an old, well-regarded winery and drove its reputation sky high.  He started his own winery in 2004 and four years later he left Beringer to focus on Sbragia Family.  He is still Winemaster Emeritus at Beringer and a consultant there.  So when you taste wine at Sbragia Family, you’re tasting a lot of winemaking heritage.

And in fact that heritage is on a continuum.  Ed’s grandfather immigrated from Tuscany and worked in the vineyards of the early 20th century.  His father, Gino, owned his own vineyards as well.  Today, Ed’s son Adam is being positioned to take over from his father, after spending some time at Beringer himself.  And we were once served in the tasting room by on of Ed’s daughters.

The wines are an interesting mix.  As you might expect from someone who earned his spurs at Beringer, the Cabernet Sauvignons are in the spotlight at Sbragia Family.  There are Cabs to try from Dry Creek, Alexander, Sonoma and Napa Valleys.  We have found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Sbragia Family is trying to discern the differences from the four different locations.  Gino’s Zinfandel is named after Ed’s father and is the original family vineyard.  They also have Uncle Italo’s Zinfandel from Alexander Valley.   (It is Sbragia Family, after all.)

Our personal favorite over the years has been the Merlot.  One year we served it at Christmas dinner with our family in Québec and they simply didn’t realize that American wines could taste like that.

The combination of the wines, the history and that incredible view make Sbragia Family a worthwhile destination if you’re going tasting in Sonoma County.

Wine Tasting in Bordeaux

For many wine lovers, including ourselves, our interest in wine started with Bordeaux reds.  Of course, we hadn’t tasted the greatest of the great Bordeaux chateaux when we were younger; maybe it was Mouton Cadet that first caught our attention and our taste buds.  From then on, as we were able to drink better wines, we thought of visiting Bordeaux as the summa of wine tasting experience.

And in many ways, it is.  But in a few ways, it isn’t.

For one thing, the wine growing areas around the city of Bordeaux cover a lot of ground and produce rather different grapes and styles of wine.  In a gross over-generalization, the vignerons of Medoc north of Bordeaux and Graves to the south make wines heavy in Cabernet Sauvignon; St. Emilion and its satellites to the east favor Merlot; in Pomerol it’s Cabernet Franc; and in the Sauternes-Barsac area they make sweet wines from Semillon.  So you don’t exactly go to Bordeaux, you go around it.

The first thing a visitor needs to know is that, as Dorothy might have put it if she were a wine afficianado, “We’re not in California anymore”.  You don’t just drive up to a winery, enter the tasting room and ask for a few pours.  You need, with a few exceptions, to have appointments.  While you can write well in advance and make them yourself, many only deal with the trade.  That means you are either a winemaker yourself or otherwise in the wine business.  “Otherwise” for these purposes often means tour organizers and brokers.  So you wind up paying someone to be an intermediary just to get you in.

Some visits are in groups; others are one-on-one with a guide who will almost always speak English.  Anticipate a tour and a tasting, each visit lasting 90 minutes to two hours.  The better the wine, the snobbier the visit.  And they generally have only one or two wines, so there is less to taste at the end of the tour.

For the most part, the villages aren’t particularly either.  The port at Paulliac is a good place to eat oysters right off the boat and Margaux has a few nice bistros, but save your dining experiences for the city of Bordeaux.

That all sounds pretty negative, but there are many more positives that outweigh the foregoing.  For one thing, especially in the Medoc, you are visiting real French chateaux.  They are gorgeous to behold and to be in; you never know when you might see some nobleman out with the hounds, as actually happened to us in Barton-Léoville.  Just driving up the main road, the D2, is to behold castles that seem to come out of fairy tales.  Unlike many other vineyard areas, the Medoc is flatland, so the castles you pass more than make up for the lack of rolling hillsides.


Chateau Pichon Baron (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The big, big exception is St. Emilion.  It is a medieval town around which wine has been produced for millennia.  You can see Roman ruins in the vineyards.  Walking through the town, you’ll find enticing restaurants and outdoor cafes.  There are bakeries selling the local delicacy called canelés, which are small, rich cakes flavored with rum, vanilla and caramel. And in town and on the outskirts, there are tasting rooms for wineries, where you don’t need appointments.  (To be honest, these are not the great ones you came to Bordeaux to visit.  Even in this region you need appointments for the big names.  But we have found a few that offer very creditable wine.)


St. Emilion (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Perhaps the best reason to go wine tasting in Bordeaux is the effect of the experience.  Once having seen the endless vineyards, seen the chateaux, tasted the wines where they’re made, you’ll never open a bottle of Bordeaux wine with the same feeling ever again.  You’ve been there, seen it, smelled the grape-sweet air (and maybe stolen grape or two if you go in autumn) and the wine will have an impact on you that you’ll carry with you forever.

Test Your Taste

There is a stereotype of wine lovers that portrays us as people who can take a sniff and a sip from a glass and identify the varietal, the label and the year.  Maybe – just maybe – that’s Robert Parker but it’s not the rest of us and surely not us at Power Tasting.  For most of the world, it’s sufficient to tell the difference between red wine and white.  (Hint: the white wine is colder.)

The sort of folks who visit Wine Country with the express purpose of tasting wine should be a little more knowledgeable than that, but how much?  And how can you tell whether you have the ability to discriminate better wines when you drink them?  A few points apply: if you like it then it’s good and if you don’t, it isn’t.  Price plays no part in the matter.  There are excellent inexpensive wines and costly bottles that are more about snob appeal than quality.  And even knowledgeable tasters disagree; heaven knows Lucie and Steve do all the time.

The solution, as with so many things in life is practice, along with its cousin, homework.

  • Try to differentiate two similar wines.  Just for fun when we have friends over for dinner, we often open two bottles and compare them.  We recently did this with two Carneros Pinot Noirs, both of which are favorites of ours from wineries whose wine clubs of which we are members.  They were both the top wines from their respective wineries at similar price points.  We had enjoyed each many times but had never tried them next to each other.  In comparing wines this way, we were forced to be very conscious of what we were smelling, tasting, feeling in our mouths, remembering after we swallowed.  There is no right or wrong; in fact, the two couples split in their opinions.  The important thing was to discern the slight differences in two great wines.
  • Try the wrong wine.  Often when dining with friends at a restaurant, we’ll order two wines to accompany different courses.  While there are no hard and fast rules, the wines ought to be complementary to the food.  A heavier wine like a California Cabernet or an Australian Shiraz will fit better with a steak and a lighter wine such as a Beaujolais with a chicken breast.  At least that’s what the book says, but what does your mouth say? If you have two different wines open, taste the one that’s not supposed to “go with”.  If it clashes, why?  What’s wrong with it?  And then, why is the “right” wine right?  What is working well in your mouth?  Finally, is there something about the “wrong” wine that you actually like?  Sometime, contrast is more interesting than compatibility.
  • Know what you don’t like.  Steve doesn’t like thin, acidic wines so a lot of Burgundies leave him cold.  Lucie, on the other hand, is not a fan of heavy, fruit forward wines so she’s not high on California Syrahs.  Of course, there are exceptions in both cases, so you need to have an open mind.  If someone says to Steve, “Try this Pommard, you’ll like it”, he’ll give it a go and sometimes he does indeed like it.  The trick in a case like that is to ask, “What is there about this Pommard that I like that I don’t like about other Burgundies?”  Maybe it’s the mouth feel, or the fruit or the aroma.  Whatever it is, search for wines of that type that are reputed to have those characteristics.
  • Listen to your wine.  Some years ago, Steve had a long-term out-of-town project.  One night he decided to make dinner for his project team of eight consultants and bought three Bordeaux blends from California and an actual Bordeaux.  He then challenged them to say which one they liked best and why.  Most of the staff were young and inexperienced in tasting wine but, amazingly, as they expressed their opinions, the terminology of wine criticism started coming out.  This wine was round.  That one had a long finish.  The real Bordeaux was subtle with more complexity.  It’s not enough to like one wine more than another.  You have to be able to articulate why you prefer one over another and the words you use will help you understand your own taste.

These simple tests are good preparation for a trip to Wine Country.  It’s very possible that you’ll taste wines you’ve never had before, maybe never heard of before.  By doing your homework, you’ll have a better idea of what’s good and not so good to the ultimate expert – yourself.

Cantine Pellegrino

Wine tasting in Europe, especially in France and Italy, comes with a special advantage – or perhaps it’s a special problem.  Lunch is a deeply respected, perhaps sacred, time of the day and everything except the restaurants closes firmly for two hours, to allow dining and maybe a little siesta.  If you’re a visitor to local wineries, you are forced to adapt to their customs and take an extended lunch yourself.  Ah, the slow and easy life, replete with fine food, local wines and friendly people!

The problem is that if you are visiting from afar, you may not have a lot of time to visit wineries in the morning before lunchtime.  And then how can you pass up on a bottle of wine with lunch?  Depending on which part of Wine Country you are in, you may not recognize any of the labels on the list, so you just choose the most expensive because even that one is cheap compared to what you’d pay for a bottle at home.

So now it’s 3:00, you may have visited one winery and you’ve tucked away a half a bottle each (assuming you are travelling in a pair, as we always do).  And you still have to drive back to where you started the day.  Hence, wine tasting in these areas requires a bit of planning and getting up early.  Alas, when we went wine tasting in Marsala in Sicily, we neither planned nor set an alarm clock.

Hence we arrived at Cantine Pellegrino’s tasting room at 12:50, ten minutes before the midday closing. The kind lady serving wine told us that there wasn’t enough time for a tour (which we didn’t want anyway) and she would only have enough time to pour us a few sips of their best wines (which was exactly what we did want).  Once she saw how interested we were, she cut 20 minutes into her appointed lunch hour(s) and we really got to know their wines.  (In fact, we already knew their Nero d’Avola, which we often order at a nearby restaurant at home.)

If you plan to visit Marsala, the center of the greatest wine producing region in Italy, get directions to find Cantine Pellegrino (http://www.carlopellegrino.it/wines/en).  Our GPS system took us near there, but led us to the winery itself, a large industrial building.  (Grapes are grown in vineyards; wines are made in factories.)  Where you want to go is the tasting room located almost a kilometer away, on the sea front.

pellegrinoCantine Pellegrino’s Ouverture tasting room  (Photo courtesy of Cantine Pellegrino)

If your wine tasting experience has been gained mostly in Napa and Sonoma, you’ll feel right at home at Pellegrino.  Their tasting room is in a very modern, three-story building that they call Ouverture.  Blindingly white in the Sicilian sunshine, it is surrounded on three sides by landscaped walking areas and by the sea on the fourth.  As mentioned, the greeting you get is very warm and, well, Italian.

The wines available for tasting cover a very wide range.  The basic red wine is Dinari del Duca (the Duke’s Money), either Nero D’Avola or Syrah.  As stated, the Nero D’Avola is exported and widely available in the United States.  Their top red wine (and also their top white) is Tripudium, a blend of indigenous and international varieties.  They also have an Etna Rosso, from the other side of the island.

The best part of the wine tasting experience at Cantine Pellegrino are the wines unique to Sicily.  Off the main island, actually nearer Tunisia than Italy, is the island of Pantelleria.  Here the primary grape grown is zibbibo and it almost exclusively used for the dessert wine called passito.  Half the harvest is vinified and the rest is left on mats in the fields to become raisins.  Then the wine is passed over – hence, passito – the raisins, producing an exquisitely sweet product.  Be prepared for your server to ask you what the taste reminds you of.  (Hint: think apricots)

Then there’s the Marsala wine.  Sure, you may know the stuff to cook with, but it’s not much to attract the taste buds of a wine lover.  At Pellegrino, you have the chance to taste well-aged, vintage Marsalas.  The oldest currently available is the 1981.  It tastes nothing like any Marsala you may have tasted, more like an Amontillado sherry.

The town of Marsala is certainly out of the way, but it’s worth a visit.  But get there well before lunch.