Far Niente Winery

If you plan to visit Far Niente (https://farniente.com) for a tasting – and it is a very pleasant visit – there are a few things you should know.  For one, you really do need an appointment.  Tastings are restricted to no more than eight people at a time, which enhances the experience for those who do make reservations.  The second is to consult a map.  Maybe Google has improved its map service recently, but our experience is that following the GPS on your phone gets you way, way lost.

The Far Niente winery.  Photo courtesy of Far Niente.

Once you have found your way there, you’ll encounter a beautiful stone manor.  It is palatial, but it’s not a Napa Palace.  It’s a home that was built in 1885 and restored in the late 1970’s by Gil Nickel, the ancestor of some of the current owners.  It is surrounded by acres of gardens and the estate is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

On arrival, you are given the sense that you are guests in a gracious home.  There is no bar to belly up to; rather you are in a salon with a large table at one end set not for dinner but for a few glasses of wine.  Once all the visitors are assembled, you are given an introductory lecture on the history of the estate, the winery and Far Niente’s approach to sustainable agriculture.  You are then led on a winery tour.  It’s a fine enough tour, but with regard to winemaking it is generally similar to those given at other top-end wineries.  There is only so much variation on the theme of growing grapes and transforming them into wine.

A corner of Far Niente’s antique car collection.

But a tour at Far Niente has a unique attraction.  At a certain point in your tour you are ushered into a large garage – really more of an indoor parking lot – full of Gil Nickel’s collection of antique cars.  There are race cars, delivery trucks, touring cars and a few motorcycles and a Rolls Royce.  You are invited to ogle these perfectly maintained specimens, on the basis of “look but don’t touch”.  Rarely would we complain about moving on to a tasting, but you don’t get to see cars like these every day!

The tasting itself is a seated affair at the aforementioned table in the salon.  There will be a recent vintage Chardonnay, often a Pinot Noir and always one or more of Far Niente’s justly famous Cabernet Sauvignons.  Each wine is carefully explained by your host/guide/server.  Little extras, like a dessert wine from their sister vineyard, usually appear.

If there is any negative to your visit, it’s the somewhat heavy sales pitch of Far Niente’s wine club.  Joining is, of course optional, but just a brief mention might suffice.

This winery, nestled in the foothills of the Mayacamas, is a destination for those who enjoy the total winery experience, with fine wines as the main draw.  From cars to Cabs, it’s well worth finding your way there.

VinExpo New York 2020

This month’s Places to Visit article is about a place most wine lovers can’t visit.  It’s a trade show that was held in March in New York City’s Javits Center for the international wine trade.  As Power Tasting’s reporters are considered to be “trade”, we were able to attend and are pleased to offer our readers an account of what the event was all about.

Part of the French pavilion at VineExpo New York 2020.

It was mostly about the business of wine.  In particular, growers from all over the world sought importers and distributors so that they could sell their wines in the US, especially on the Eastern Seaboard.  And of course, importers and distributors were looking for new producers without the expense of travelling overseas.  [VinExpo New York occurred on March 2 and 3, after the coronavirus had begun to spread but before it was the worldwide crisis it has become.]

Wines were displayed (and tasted) from all over the globe: France, Italy and Spain being the most prominently positioned, but Brazil, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Georgia also had sizable exhibits.  (That’s Georgia from the Caucasus, not from Dixie.)  There was a huge tasting area for organic wines.  There were also numerous exhibits of wine accompaniments, such as glasses, barware and preservation systems.

Jeffrey Franklin of the Society of Wine Educators discussing (and tasting) with Armelle Cruse and Paul Maron of Cru Bourgeois du Medoc.

There were also many lectures and curated tastings.  These were split between sessions that were clearly for those in the wine business, such as a panel discussion sponsored by Wine Spectator on “The Changing World of Wine Retail in the US” and others that were about wines from certain locations, such as the Czech Republic and Sonoma County.  Not surprisingly, the lectures that included tastings were the ones most widely attended.

So what was to be learned that is of interest to (shall we say “non-professional”) wine tasters?

  • Wine is a business and internationally it’s a big business. From the casual buyer to the connoisseur, wine drinkers buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of wine each year.  We learned that this market is expected to grow to more than $400 billion by 2023.  As a group, we wine tasters have some economic clout.
  • Some very good wines are being made in places other than those we’re accustomed to. Brazilian sparkling wine?  Not bad.  Czech Muller-Thurgau?  Worth sipping.  With wine being made in all fifty of the United States, we Americans shouldn’t be surprised by other countries’ entry into the market.
  • Small producers have a tough time breaking into the US market. Of course, this does not come as a shock.  With the shipper, the importer, the distributor and the retailer (or restaurateur) adding their costs to the price of a bottle, it is either not financially feasible for many small wine houses to sell here or for many customers to take a chance with a virtually unknown wine.
  • There’s more to the wine business than wine. Somebody makes money selling the rack you store the wine in, the gizmo you use to pull out the cork and the glasses you sip it from.  Of course, you knew that.  But seeing it all in one place reminds us that there’s an awful lot of money needed to get the wines we love get from the vine to our tables.

Crus Bourgeois

When we were young(er) and just beginning to enjoy wine, we thought there were only two sorts of wine: Bordeaux and other.  Now, we still love a good Bordeaux and the best of them are among the world’s finest.  We knew about the Classified Growths from the 1855 survey but they became more and more expensive, so we drank less of them.  And we also recognize that there is a lot of wonderful wine from other countries and regions in France.

Then we discovered the Crus Bourgeois.  These are red wines from the Médoc region, which means that St. Emilion and Pomerol, as well as other Right Bank regions are not included.  As far back as the 15th century, these wines were produced on properties of the middle classes, meaning the merchant class, from the cities (or bourgs).  The nobility had their grand vineyards and could charge premier prices; the bourgeois were happy just to make and sell good wine.

But the designation became so widely used that there was no reason at one time to believe that a cru bourgeois was any more than plonk.  So several times in the 20th century the growers tried to bring some order to the confusion.  In 2003, there was a classification with three levels: just plain Crus Bourgeois, then Supérieur and Exceptionnel.  That top tier had only nine châteaux, many of them considered the equivalent (or better) of some Classified Growths.  To say the least, the list was controversial and was dropped in 2007 in favor of just one level.

In 2016, they tried again.  They returned to the three levels and judged the wines over a five-year period, beginning in 2018.  Fairly rigorous standards were published (https://www.crus-bourgeois.com/app/uploads/2020/03/Press-kit-2020-Crus-Bourgeois-du-M%C3%A9doc-Classification.pdf ) and the list was announced this year.  Sadly, none of the Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels from 2003 participated, so such favorites of ours as Chasse-Spleen, Haut-Marbuzet and Ormes de Pez aren’t there.

The selection criteria are rather interesting and are indicative of the direction of the marketplace.  Of course, the Cru Bourgeois wines have to meet criteria of taste and aroma.  An anonymous blind tasting panel makes the initial cut at what is and is not a Cru Bourgeois.  In order to qualify as a Cru Bourgeois Supérieur or Exceptionnel, there are additional considerations.  They have to do with the sustainability of the agriculture in the vineyards and winery.  They also deal with management’s actions “to optimize the character of the wine (vineyard, harvest, winery, bottling, quality assurance system)”.

A real eye-opener for those of us who might travel to Bordeaux for wine tasting, one of the criteria for the advanced designations is the “quality of reception of visitors”.  In other words, to be a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, these wineries must offer an exceptional experience for those who come to sample the wine in their tasting rooms.  Of course, we at Power Tasting are delighted with this development.  The “quality of reception” is an expression of a winery’s attitude towards their customers, not least the ones who care enough to come to visit.  The fact that the way they treat wine tasters can affect a wine’s recognition and sales, shows again that wine tasters can affect the market for wine.


Wine Tasters Can Affect the Market

It is well known that wines in many parts of the world taste different than they did a generation ago.  Perhaps those with superior taste memories can testify to what wines used to smell and taste like, but all of us can be aware of certain changes. Taken overall, today’s red wines are more robust, more alcoholic, ready to drink at a younger age and more likely to come from a large corporation.  Whites are also more alcoholic and more full-bodied; in most of the world, they are quite likely to be either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, to the exclusion of other grapes.

How did this happen?

Some attribute this, with some justification, to the influence of wine critics, in particular Robert Parker.  Others see the broadening of the market to include younger, less experienced wine drinkers whose tastes run towards boldness rather than subtlety.  The trends may be attributable to better science and technology that make bigger, more alcoholic wines easier to produce.

A wine tasting focus group.  Photo courtesy of Find Focus Groups.

The simplest answer is that wine producing companies and their winemakers have simply responded to the demands of the wine-buying marketplace.  They are catering to the tastes of the people who are buying wine.  That makes sense, but how do they know?  They surely hold focus groups and monitor retail sales, but these are fairly blunt instruments.  Focus groups don’t necessarily tap into a meaningful cross-section of the people who buy most of the wine.  And sales figures reflect a lot more than taste.  Price, location, pretty labels and bottles, and the dominance of certain distributors also enter into the calculation.  How else to explain the past popularity of Two Buck Chuck?

A big factor in influencing the producers is the feedback that wineries receive from visitors in their tasting rooms, who are the more avid sector of the wine-drinking public.  Those of us who enjoy traveling to sample wines can offer direct and immediate feedback to the wineries.  They can see what people prefer, up close and personal.  Do most visitors smile at that unoaked Chardonnay or do they wince and pour it out?  Are the people who are enjoying a 16% alcohol Zinfandel just partiers out to get drunk or are they expressing pleasure at the fullness and depth of flavor that extra ripeness bring along with the alcohol?

There are things that we can do to affect the market when we go wine tasting.

  • Speak up. Let the server know what you like and why.  If you get a chance to chat with the winemaker or the tasting room manager, be vocal about your likes and dislikes.
  • Ask questions. If you have been familiar with a wine for a long period of time and it seems different to you now, it’s fair to ask if that’s the case and why it’s happens.  Not all tasting room employees are knowledgeable enough to answer these questions, but if you are just a little persistent, they’ll find someone who is.
  • Vote with your wallet. If you particularly like a certain wine, buy some right there in the winery.  If you really like the broad production of a winery, join their wine club.  The bean counters (or are they grape counters?) in the back office are acutely aware of who their locked-in buyers are and what they like.

Wine tasting voyagers have the power to influence what wineries produce.  So go ahead and use your power.  That’s what Power Tasting is all about.