When you are out wine-tasting, lunch is a necessity.  Don’t even think of sipping wine on an empty stomach.  Breakfast is important too, but the morning meal does not lend itself to lazy luxuriating quite as much as does lunch.  One thing that almost all wine-making regions have in common is the availability of superb cuisine.  Why travel all that way to Wine Country and deny yourself the pleasure of a leisurely meal at midday?

Caffés in Montalcino.

In Europe, you have no choice.  On that enlightened continent, a two-hour work stoppage is de rigeur, as they say over there.  So you pull into a town or stop at a French café (or an Italian caffé) surrounded by vines and do like the locals do.  We can’t open a bottle of Brunello without thinking of warm afternoons on the piazzas of Montalcino.  The same goes for St. Emilion, Greve in Chianti and Chateauneuf de Pape.

When visiting California’s sections of Wine Country, you have the option to gulp down a Big Mac and keep on tasting.  We Americans are all go-go-go and that does have some business advantage.  But if you are on a wine tasting trip, you’re not there on business (unless you’re a distributor).  Just because you can try three wineries between noon and 2:00 doesn’t mean that you should.  Not when the bistros of Calistoga, Healdsburg, Paso Robles or Santa Barbara are calling out to you.

It’s all a matter of attitude.  If you just happen to be passing through and you only have a little while available to you, then eat something quickly and then stop by at a winery or two.  But have you ever just happened to be passing through Yountville?  Or Pauillac?

Another argument is that wine tasting should be about wine and a fancy lunch is just an unnecessary use of your mouth.  If your objective is just to taste as much wine as you can in as short a time as possible – a highly dangerous goal – you’re better off picking up a few bottles at the store and staying home.  For us, at any rate, a large part of the reason to go wine tasting is to be in Wine Country, to soak it all in (not just drink it all in).  And that means eating lunch where the locals go.

Photo courtesy of the (San Jose) Mercury News.

You’ll never dine anywhere where there are no tourists, but there are many places where you can sit with people from the neighborhood and from the wineries.  That doesn’t necessarily mean white tablecloths and fine fare.  For example, if you’re tasting in St. Helena, there are few places that scream WINE COUNTRY like the original Gott’s Roadside.  Oh, there are all the attributes of the fancy places, such as locavore purveyors and Ahi tuna, but at the end of the day, it’s about the burgers.  And if you want some wine, Joel Gott makes that too.

The point is that you should make a good lunch a part of your wine tasting adventure, not a diversion from it.  Be careful how much you drink with lunch if you’re going to keep tasting all afternoon, but remember wine was made to go with food.


The idea of a winery as a shopping mart is almost exclusively a California thing.  We have never encountered non-wine related merchandise in a winery anywhere outside the United States.  We have encountered an establishment in the Central Coast that bills itself as a gift shop and winery, in that order.  (In keeping with Power Tasting’s speak-no-evil policy, they will go unnamed, but let us assure you that the wine in a self-described gift shop is likely to be awful.)  Many wineries sell a few items – shirts, baseball caps, coasters and wine glasses – emblazoned with their name or logo.  We aren’t talking about those; we mean wineries with sizable retail establishments.

The shop at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Most of these are in Napa Valley, with a few in Sonoma County.  There are some where we make a point, whenever we visit, to see what they’re selling because we have occasionally found things we like and bought some gifts.  Among these is Robert Mondavi Winery, where our primary interest is the wine, of course.  They have an extensive gift shop that is particularly attractive at Christmastime.  The shop has an interesting selection of books, mostly of the coffee-table variety, on wine and wineries.  Besides books, we have bought Christmas-tree ornaments and decorative ceramics there.

Beringer Vineyards also features beautiful wares for Christmas.  Their shop is not very large, but they do have quite a few beautiful things.  Once again, the reason to visit is not for the shopping, but for the wine and the architecture.  Still, there are lovely items available for sale.

Inglenook Vineyard, once known as Niebaum Coppola, is a testimonial to the life, career (and ego) of Francis Ford Coppola, the film director.  Despite that, Inglenook makes some top-end wine, especially their Rubicon blend.  The architecture and grounds are attractive and the selection in their shop is, for a winery, extensive and idiosyncratic.  On several occasions, we have bought tablecloths there; like many of their items these evoked Mr. Coppola’s Italian-American heritage.  The products on sale differ every time we have been to Inglenook, so other than corkscrews and coasters, don’t expect to find the same things twice.

Photo courtesy of Darioush.

The most opulent winery shopping experience is to be found at Darioush (which to our opinion is way too much.)  In keeping with their Persian temple architecture, the items they sell are luxurious, perhaps extravagant. Many of them are Iranian-themed, such as a pomegranate plate or Persian cookbooks.  The handbags and clothing, housewares and backgammon sets are all beautiful and well-made. Management at Darioush has made it clear to us that their intended market for their wines is interested in luxury items, which they also extend in their non-wine wares.

You may notice that we haven’t mentioned prices.  None of the winery shops are inexpensive. Likewise, all the shopping locations we mention are also producers of top-quality wine.  That’s probably not a coincidence.  People who like great wine are also likely to be customers for beautiful goods.  At the same time, there are many other wineries with excellent wine who only focus on the wine-tasting experience, not merchandise.  Our advice is to visit wineries for the wine.  If there are pretty things to buy, why not look them over?


Many times when you go wine tasting you find yourself way out in the country, with all stores and restaurants a considerable drive away.  In other cases you’re either near a town (sometimes a city) or you’re visiting in-town tasting rooms.  Sure, you came to taste the local wines but the towns themselves are so much fun.  Many of them are historic and all have their own charm and beauty.

In no particular order, our favorites are:

  • Beaune in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or
  • Emilion in Bordeaux
  • Narbonne and Béziers in the Languedoc
  • Montalcino and Montepulciano in Tuscany
  • Radda in Chianti (which is also in Tuscany)
  • Porto in Portugal (actually in Gaia Nova, just across the Douro river)
  • Sonoma, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County
  • St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville in Napa Valley
  • Paso Robles and Santa Barbara in the Central Coast


So what should you do when faced with the temptation to see a town’s attractions rather than going to more tasting rooms?  Our recommendation is to give in.  Here are a few tips to enjoy Wine Country towns without giving up too much of your wine tasting experience.

  • If you have the time, take a day to focus on visiting one or more towns. In California, this is definitely a good idea for weekends, when the wineries in the vineyards are awfully crowded.  Most European towns have a number of plazas, often built around a cathedral or a castle, that are themselves well worth a visit.  Some California towns are built around central squares that are pleasant to walk through.  Healdsburg and Sonoma are among those with town squares.

Radda in Chianti.

  • Take advantage of the tasting opportunities in the towns. In many California towns, wineries have opened tasting rooms for passers-by.  In the past these were all rather second-rate, but in recent years top producers have opened up rooms, in addition to the ones at their wineries.  In some European towns, such as Beaune, major wineries have established their headquarters and tasting facilities.  And in many others, wine shops offer degustaziones (tastings) for a small fee.
  • Enjoy being a tourist. None of these towns were crawling with visitors in the past, as little as a few decades ago in some cases.  As more outsiders came to see the vines and sip the wines, sleepy agricultural villages transformed themselves into “attractions”.  There’s no need to sneer.  The cafés do serve authentic regional fare; the handicrafts are usually made by local artisans; the houses and churches are picturesque.  What’s not to enjoy?
  • Stay the night…or a few days. That’s when you get a true feel for Wine Country.  The day trippers are gone and when you step into a wine bar, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with the people who tend the grapes and make the wines you came to enjoy.     If you keep your ears open, you’ll hear conversations about yields and trellising that let you know that the people around you get their hands dirtier than you ever will, just so you can enjoy a bottle of wine.
  • You never know who you’ll meet. We were having an after-dinner drink at Willi’s in Healdsburg when we got into a conversation with the fellow sitting next to us at the bar.  It turns out he was the executive chef at some of our  favorite American restaurants, including Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen nearby.  We told him how much we admired Mr. Palmer’s restaurants and then he went back to talking with his pals. A few minutes later he turned back to us and introduced one of his friends: “Hi, I’m Charlie Palmer” said the friend, his hand outstretched.

Editorial: Virtual Visiting

It’s just about a year now that the Covid-19 pandemic has been upon us.  As with most people, we at Power Tasting have been staying home in order to stay safe.  Wineries in the United States and Europe have been closed, open, closed, open depending on the current state of infections in each locality.  For those of us who enjoy travelling for wine tasting, 2020 was a barren year and 2021 isn’t starting any better.

And yet we have published Power Tasting every month as though the pandemic had never happened.  [Actually, that’s not entirely true.  Our May 2020 edition was about wine tasting during the lockdown.]  That’s because, as we say in our mission statement on our home page, we are writing to the vacationer, not the connoisseur.  And since few people can go on vacation all the time, our monthly articles are intended to give readers a virtual visit to Wine Country on the device of their choice.

We’re going to continue publishing these wine tasting vignettes every month.  Since the governor of California has just lifted restrictions on public gatherings, our mailbox has been full of announcements for tastings at our favorite wineries.  Sadly, we won’t be going and unless you live nearby, you probably won’t be either.  Please continue to travel with us, all the while staying safe, until we all can get on the road again.

The Hess Collection

The Hess Collection winery ( is a little out of the way, up on Mt. Veeder.  It’s worth the trip, for two reasons.  The obvious one is to taste their wines.  The other is to see their art.

The winery was founded by one of the Napa Valley pioneers, by Donald Hess of Switzerland back in the 1980s.  He had already made a fortune in Swiss sparkling water and had started collecting art.  So when he opened a winery in California he also used the location to house his paintings and sculptures.  And he continued to collect more widely.  For a visitor to Napa Valley, a trip the The Hess Collection is both an aesthetic and gustatory experience.

The Hess Collection winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The art gallery adjoins the tasting room.  There are other wineries, especially in Napa Valley, that also exhibit fine art.  But The Hess Collection has a museum of modern art with artists and pieces of the highest quality.  Many artists are quite well-known: Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella to name a few.  All the works are from Donald Hess’ personal collection.  (The Hess Collection, get it?)

Photograph courtesy of Incollect.

As you enter the gallery, the first painting you see is an enormous portrait entitled Johanna II by Franz Gertsch, a Swiss artist.  It is photorealistic and is the most widely featured artwork in publicity for the museum.  Perhaps that’s to entice visitors who are not as familiar with abstract art, which makes up the majority of the paintings and drawings on display.

There is much sculpture shown as well.  Some are easy to relate to, such as the full length male nudes by Deryck Healy, a South African artist previously unknown to us.  And others, such as the enormous oak log by Polish artist Magdalena Abakonowicz…well, you just have to see it.

Oh, yes, you can taste wines, too.  At one point, there were two quality levels available for tasting, Hess Select and The Hess Collection.  The former was (and is) intended for the mass market.  These wines are still available at retail but not at the winery.

The strength – and in some ways, the weakness – of the wines you can taste there is the enormous variety of wines they make.  Their top wines, in the Icon series (a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay), are quite refined and really only for connoisseurs.  It is rare that these will be available for tasting.  Those bottled under The Hess Collection label are the ones you might see in a quality wine shop and they lean towards Cabs.  There’s also a Lions Head series with the same mix of grapes.  Then there are the wines they source from nearby and distant vineyards, which they call Small Block wines; these are only available at the winery.

Overall, you might not like everything in the Hess Collection museum or the winery, but that’s all right.  We don’t like everything in the Louvre, either.  But there is much to admire, and an hour or so spent at this museum is as much a part of the Napa Valley experience as their wines.