Lucky Find

They say that no good deed goes unpunished.  Be that as it may, it’s not always the case and here’s a story to prove it.  In the summer of 2000, Steve got into a cab in New York City and there sitting on the back seat was a wallet, full of cash and credit cards.  He could have given it to the driver to turn in to the city’s Lost and Found, if there is such a thing, but instead he leafed through the cards and found a driver’s license.  Using his cell and Directory Assistance, he called the owner’s home in Windsor, CA.  Of course no one was at home – Steve found the wallet in New York after all – but he left a message.  Minutes later he received a call from the fellow who had lost the wallet.  He was amazed that he would get his wallet back, in New York of all places.

When the handover occurred, the gentleman offered Steve some money, which he turned down.  Steve told him to pass the word along in California that the nasty myths about New Yorkers weren’t all true.  Steve was asked for his business card and, expecting a thank you note, he gave one and sent the lucky tourist on his way.

A few weeks passed and Steve found a box on his desk with three wine bottles in it, his reward for returning the wallet.  Two of the wineries have become favorites of ours; sadly the third never lived up to its promise.  The two were Limerick Lane and David Coffaro.  In keeping with our practice not to speak ill of a winery, the third one will go unnamed.  They are still there to be visited and we’ll reflect on what they were like then as well as how they have changed since.


As it happened, Lucie and Steve made their first visit together to Napa/Noma a few weeks after the bottles arrived and we made Limerick Lane, in Russian River, our first stop.  Then and now it’s a bit hard to find, although in the ensuing years more wineries have opened on the eponymous road.  Lucie had never tasted a proper Zinfandel, nor had she seen or tasted the grape itself. (It is small and very sweet.) So this winery was a revelation.  At the time, the tasting room was little more than a garage with a folding table and some bottles, but the wines were eye-openingly good.  Back then it was owned by  Michael Collins, who focused on the Zins and in time added a very good Pinot Noir.  We joined the wine club and were quite happy with the wines Limerick Lane sent us.

The Bilbro brothers in today’s Limerick Lane tasting room.  Photo courtesy of Limerick Lane Winery.

In 2011, the winery was sold to the brothers Jake and Alexis Bilbro.  They changed the label (we preferred the old one), dropped the Pinot Noir and somewhat amped up the wines.  We were unhappy at the time and dropped out of the club.  In retrospect, 2011 was a terrible year across California and the Bilbro brothers picked a lousy time to take over the property.  We are happy to report that Limerick Lane no longer has a wine club because their wines have improved to the point that they get huge numbers from the press and many of their wines are allocated.

David Coffaro in his vineyard, in his habitual “suit”.  Photo courtesy of David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery.

As much change as there has been at Limerick Lane, there has been very little at David Coffaro.  It is still sitting alongside Dry Creek Road, with Dave very much still in charge.  If you like big, fruit-forward wines made from familiar and unfamiliar grapes alike (and often blended together) then you’ll like what come from this winery. For sure, Dave’s wines aren’t for the faint of heart so if you like big, bold California wines, Dave’s your man.  See our previous review of David Coffaro Winery for more information.

Don’t you just like stories with happy endings?


Rochioli Vineyards and Winery

Rochioli ( sits on Westside Road in the Russian River section of Sonoma County.   It’s not immediately apparent from the road, being set back behind a parking lot and some gardens that block the sight of the winery itself.  Moreover, it’s just beyond a turn in the road, so it’s very easy to drive right by.  So keep your eyes peeled as you drive along; this is a winery where you definitely want to stop, for a number of reasons.

It’s possible to have an enjoyable tasting experience in some places, even if the wine isn’t very good.  Fortunately, that’s not a problem at Rochioli (pronounced ROE-key-OH-lee).  The wines, particularly the Pinot Noirs and the Chardonnays, are top tier and have a reputation to back that up.  In fact, one of the pleasures of a visit to Rochioli is to thumb through the heavy scrapbook they keep by the side of the bar where you can read all the letters from the White House expressing the thanks from past Presidents who have served and drunk their wines at state dinners.  If you’re not a Head of State yourself (and who is?) it’s fun to pretend for a few minutes while you sip the wines.

The winery building is an unassuming redwood structure, pretty enough in its way but certainly not palatial.  In the past, the interior wasn’t much to talk about either, but in recent years they have spruced it up with a nice zinc-topped bar and a pentagonal window overlooking the vineyards (of which more later).  The look of the tasting room is still not the reason to visit, but it’s quite pleasant in a clean, spare way.

There are really two attractions: the wines, of course, and the view.  Rochioli has made its reputation on estate-grown varietals and that estate is just outside the window.  It is amazing to taste the same grapes grown in rock-throwing distance from one another and detect the differences.  Since it’s the same wine maker from the same estate, the difference has to be attributable to the terroir.   To be sure, it takes the skillful hand of the wine maker to draw out the essence of the terroir.

You are welcome to buy a bottle or two of these wines, if they have them available.  And there’s the rub.  Rochioli’s wines are for the most part allocated.  You need to be on the The List (yes, they capitalize both words) to have access to them and then you are committed to buying some every year or you fall off The List.  We’re told it takes at least five years to get there and they ask that you not call to check where you are on The List.  They’ll tell you when the time comes.  We are currently two years into our five.

As noted, the other great attraction at Rochioli is the view across their vineyards.  The winery is on a slight rise and there are umbrella shaded tables at the rear.  We have written before about wine tasting with a view and mentioned Rochioli; we’re happy to cite it again. This is a great please to have a wonderful lunch.  The nearest places to pick up gourmet edibles (you wouldn’t want PB&J sandwiches, would you?) are the Dry Creek General Store and the Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg.  Buy a bottle of one of Rochioli’s wines to go with your lunch (of course you have to if you want to use their picnic area), borrow the wine glasses from the tasting room) and have a couple of glasses of wine with your lunch.  Be careful, of course, not to have too much.

We don’t know if this is how they’re dining at the White House, but it will feel like lunch time in Heaven when you follow our advice.

Tasting the Greats

In some areas of Wine Country, you go tasting and you know not to expect much.  In other places, you anticipate sipping some fine wines, but the discovery of which ones will appeal to you awaits the tasting.  And then there are occasions, not many, when you know in advance that you will soon be tasting something superb.  You might have an appointment at one of the premier cru chateaux in Bordeaux, say Mouton Rothschild.  Or perhaps it’s Opus One in the Napa Valley or Biondi Santi, the home of Brunello in Tuscany.  The top of the top.

If you love wine, these are very special experiences, akin to visiting the Louvre or the Grand Canyon.  These wines are known to be the finest of their type and as you approach one of these special wineries, your sense of anticipation rises to a crescendo.  You know you are about to have a very special wine tasting. This is a life experience in itself.  With all that, don’t let your emotions carry you away.  This is still just wine, a pleasing part of your life for sure but not, for most of us, central to it.  Here are some tips for making the most of a very special occasion without being overwhelmed by it.

Chateau d’Yquem.  Photo courtesy of LVMH.

  • Don’t complain.  The tasting is probably expensive.  There may be a wait for a tour group to arrive.  Outside the United States, you may have some difficulty understanding your guide or server.  You probably won’t get a chance to taste the 1982 vintage.  Put all that out of your mind and recognize that even the greatest châteaux are run by wine people, not corporate efficiency experts.  Don’t spoil your visit thinking about what it’s not.  Make the most of what it is.
  • Savor the entire experience.  It’s not just about tasting the wine.  Often the tasting comes with a tour but if not, make arrangements to have one.  Learning how the best make wine gives you some background for the lesser but still very good wineries you will visit in the future.  There is something about seeing the Rothschilds’ cellars or 100-year old casks that are still in use that is simply thrilling.  Soak up the furnishings, the art work, the views of top-tier vineyards.  If you enjoy wine tasting as much as we do, this will be the summa.  Enjoy it to the fullest.
  • In what seems like contradictory advice, remember that it’s just wine.  A press is a press, a barrel is a barrel and bottle is a bottle.  The makers of plonk do it the same way as Robert Mondavi did, just with less skill, lesser materials and poorer grapes.  It has been our experience that it is a pleasure to see someone do something as well as it can be done, regardless of what it is.  But keep it in context.  What you will see in these great wineries is the making of a fine beverage, not the cure for diseases or a flight to the moon.  By keeping that perspective, you will enjoy this experience without diminishing the pleasure of other wine tasting adventures yet to come.
  • Appreciate the wine when you taste it.  You won’t get a lot in your glass and you may not be able to afford to taste some of these wines again, so sip slowly.  Absorb the aromas.  Think about the flavors opening up in your mouth. Think of where you are and look around to print that moment in your memory.  Try to remember the taste, as hard as that may be.  We have long said that it’s your mouth and your taste buds, so there is no one to tell you what’s good and what’s not.  But honestly, if you don’t enjoy these wines, it’s probably you, not the wine.

The Funk Zone

Wine tasting comes where you find it.  For the most part, the most enjoyable tastings are at wineries alongside the vineyards where the grapes were grown.  But urban tasting has its charms as well, as we have written about before.  One of the great growing regions in Southern California is the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, but it’s not close to anything much, unless you just happen to be passing through Lompoc.  For that reason, many of the best vineyards in the county have opened tasting rooms in the city of Santa Barbara.

There are two totally different wine tasting experiences to be had in Santa Barbara.  Uptown has some very elegant tasting rooms, many in chic shopping malls off the major streets.  We’ll save a write up on Uptown for another issue.  The other locale is called the Funk Zone and not without reason. Get ready to PAR-TEE!

Now that may not be to your taste in wine tasting.  If so, visit the Funk Zone as early as possible in the morning before the crowds arrive.  If the weather is good – and it’s almost always good in Santa Barbara – you can be sure that the crowds will arrive.  It would be one thing if we had to report that the wines weren’t worth tasting and the servers knew nothing about what they were pouring.  However, there are quite a few interesting wines to be tasted, often from small producers who can’t afford a fancy tasting room.

We don’t pretend to offer a comprehensive tour of the Funk Zone (or anywhere else, for that matter) but we can offer a few suggestions for some interesting tasting there.  Of course, being close to the Santa Rita Hills means that there will be a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to be sipped. And yet…

Photo courtesy of Discover Santa Barbara

Our favorite discovery in the Funk Zone was Kunin Wines.  The tasting room has the atmosphere of a breezy shore house and indeed it’s a short walking distance from the Pacific.  The majority of their wines are Rhône varietals: Viogner and Syrah leading the pack.  They have a few blends that they compare with Châteauneuf du Pape. Okay, they’re nothing like Châteauneufs but they are really nice California Rhônes which isn’t a bad thing at all.  We were there early in the day and it was quite sedate; when we stopped by in the afternoon a frat party had broken out.

Nearby is the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, a huge barnstyle building, which features a number of producers, most focused on Pinot Noirs.  You can sample all the wines from one wine maker or do comparative flights from several.  Our favorites were Babcock and good ol’ Fess Parker of Davy Crockett, Dan’l Boone and Pinot Noir fame.  We were pleasantly surprised at the knowledge of our server who seemed too young to know that much and explain it that well.  A nice touch is The Lark restaurant’s cafe in the same space, where you can get good food to go along with your tasting.

Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Wine Collective

Another chance to experiment is at the Valley Project, which offers a tour, in your glass,  of some unfamiliar grapes and terroirs of Santa Barbara County.  The building itself is an attractive, open space with a map of the region on an enormous chalk board behind the bar.  Not all the wines were to our taste, but it was a good chance to see what else was going on besides Santa Rita Hills Pinots.

If you’re young or young in spirit, the Funk Zone is for you.  If you’re not, you can still have a very good time there if you plan your day right.

Welcome to Power Tasting

November-December 2017 Edition – The Good Stuff

This issue concerns some of the better aspects of wine tasting: top wines, good deeds and good times.  There’s a little in France, a little in New York and more than a little in California.  As we keep saying, Wine Country is a big place.  So come with us to:

  • Rochioli Vineyards and Winery – a winery in Sonoma County whose wines have been served many times at the White House
  • Lucky Find – the wine experience that grew from finding a wallet in a cab
  • The Funk Zone – partying while you taste on a visit to Santa Barbara
  • Tasting the Greats – tips on getting the most out of a visit to the very best wineries

Articles from the October issue are also still available:

About Power Tasting

Power Tasting is a monthly e-magazine about the wine tasting experience, not about wine itself.  We offer suggestions to the traveler who wishes to visit wineries and taste good wine. We are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur. We want to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar and to be able to taste – not drink – as much as possible within the boundaries of safety and sanity.

Each issue has four sections:

  • Wine Tasting Tips – There is advice to those new to wine tasting and to seasoned tasters alike.  This section aims to give visitors to Wine Country, wherever in the world that may be, useful techniques to get the most out of their visits.
  • Wineries – Each issue has a review of the experience of visiting a particular winery.  Some may be in the wine making areas that wine lover most frequently travel to, like Napa Valley or Bordeaux.  And other issues feature wineries as far off the beaten track as we can go.
  • Experiences – In our travels, as with other wine tasting enthusiasts, we have had many experiences, some humorous, some inspiring and some best shared so that others might avoid them.  This section relates them to Power Tasting’s readers.
  • Places to Visit – Wine Country is a fabulous place.  It has vineyards and wineries, restaurants and galleries and it is in the country and in cities.  It is anywhere that wine is available for tasting.  Each month Power Tasting takes you to interesting places other than wineries,  offering suggestions for what else to do on a wine tasting trip.

Who We Are

A few years ago, Lucie Gauthier and Steve Ross (a married couple living in Manhattan) set out to write a book about wine tasting. We are avid lovers of wine from all over the world and have travelled widely to wine growing regions on four continents. However, we don’t feel qualified to offer advice or even public opinions about wine.

[Well, that’s not exactly true. Steve offers two rules: 1. Know what you like. 2. Remember what it’s called.]

As mentioned, comments about wine will be incidental. We’re focusing on the overall experience, including the service, knowledge of the personnel, crowd management, artwork, architecture and the overall ambience of the wineries we visit. We may even mention where to have a picnic or take a walk in the garden. And we may write about some restaurants, shops and other things to do while on a wine tasting trip.

We are pleased to share our enthusiasm for wine tasting and invite our readers to share theirs with us.