Tasting Less that the Best

We have been very fortunate in our wine tasting experiences over the years.  We’ve had the chance to visit and taste some of the most famous and exclusive wines from the United States, Europe, Australia and South Africa.  We have bought a few bottles and from time to time we open some of those bottles and give ourselves the pleasure of tasting greatness.  But most of the time, we drink very nice wines that are either from one the wine clubs we are members of or which are easily available, accessible and economical.  We believe that most wine enthusiasts follow the same pattern that we do.  (We’ve often wondered whether the Rothschilds ever open a simple Beaujolais on a steamy summer evening.  If any Rothschilds are reading this, please let us know.)

The problem, if that’s what it is, is that when we go wine tasting we don’t gravitate towards the wineries and wines that are our normal fare on a routine Tuesday.  We choose the wineries that we know, from experience or reputation, that make the best wines in that region.  In many instances, these wineries make an array of wines, some of which are low-priced, mass-market entries and others that approach the very finest.

Beringer’s Rhine House, which includes Beringer’s premium tasting room.

Let’s take one winery as an example: Beringer.  They have some wines that sell below ten dollars a bottle.  (In fairness, they do not sell these wines at their winery in St. Helena.  For a long while, these plonk wines were served in dive bars and at company affairs, and we thought that these were all Beringer made.)   At the other extreme, their Private Reserve can rival any wine from California or elsewhere.  There are other top-end single vineyard varietals and there are many Beringer wines at the lower end of the price spectrum that are quite enjoyable.  What do we drink when we visit Beringer?  Their finest wines, of course.  We have some at home, but more often we open their wines that cost 80% less than the top tier.  And we like them quite a lot.

The lesson, we guess, is that we ought to pay more attention to the less than the best wines when we go tasting.  It’s difficult.  Once we’ve tasted the best, everything else seems rather drab.  Of course, we try to save the best for last, but then we often choose the premium tasting menu and never even sip anything in the more affordable category.

There have been cases in which we have asked to compare wines made from the same grape on both the premium and the regular menus.  Most servers don’t care; after all, their potential customer is more likely to enjoy the costlier wine more and might buy some.  There is a line of thought that if the top wines are excellent, some of that excellence should be reflected in the lesser ones.  There are many instances in which that is true.  But in these times of mega-corporate takeovers, it is often the case that the grapes for the commercial wines are purchased from other vineyards, pressed and bottled in different factories and have far lesser quality controls.  Sometimes the adage, “you get what you pay for” is true.

Groth Vineyards and Winery

There’s a certain mystique about visiting Groth (www.grothwines.com).  When we tell knowledgeable friends that we’ve been there, we often get that look, as though we had joined them as members of a secret society of wine insiders.  It’s hard to call Groth a cult wine but many of those who love their wines treat it that way.

So let’s deal with the wines first, before discussing the tasting experience there.  They make Cabernet Sauvignon.  Oh yes, they grow other Bordeaux blending grapes and they do have some white wines.  But believe us (and the Groth people themselves) Groth is all about Cab.  We don’t review wines at Power Tasting, but suffice it to say that their Cabernet Sauvignons are rather good and have won awards over the 40+ years they have been growing grapes and making wines.

The entrance to the Groth winery.

You don’t just drop in for a tasting at Groth.  Their policy is strictly “by appointment only”.  So, as you drive along the shady Oakville Cross Road and see Groth’s remarkable building, you will want to visit.  To do so, however, you would have needed to make a reservation well in advance.

The building seems from afar like a pink stucco Spanish hacienda.  It is set well off the road behind acres of vines, so that when you actually do approach you might find it surprising to see how large it is.  That’s because it’s an industrial property where people crush grapes, age wine and then bottle and sell it.  But it is also the home of the Groth family, so a visit to the winery is also a house call.

Inside the Groth winery.

That spirit is carried forward by the guide assigned to your visit who shows you round and serves you some wine.  The hacienda feeling is enhanced by the furnishings, made of gleaming wood and seemingly antique.  The daughter of the winery’s founder, now in charge of their operations, had once intended to be a professional artist and you can see several of her paintings on the walls.

Not surprisingly, the guides talk reverently about the Groths, particularly the founder, Dennis.  We’ve also heard that tone applied to winery owners who inherited their wealth or bet early on Microsoft.  When you walk around the winery, you might see old photos of Mr. Groth with fellows such as Mr. Mondavi, Mr. Winiarski and Mr. Heitz, you realize that he was one of Napa Valley’s pioneers.  True, the Groth family came to the valley “only” in 1982.  They intended to make fine Bordeaux style wines and they did it.  It’s no mean feat to look back on your career and say that you accomplished your goal.

All that history means nothing to the visitor if the essentials aren’t there.  But fine architecture, a warm greeting and good wine should always go together in Wine Country.  Sadly, that’s not always the case in Napa Valley and elsewhere.  Visitors should treasure the combination when they encounter it, as we have done at Groth.


Local Shops

The whole idea of a vacation is to get away from your everyday life for a while.  If you’re from a city or suburbs, then Wine Country is a pretty big change, and if you live amidst the vineyards, it’s not really a vacation to go wine tasting.  Still, there are times, even when you want to get away from it all, that a certain amount of reality intrudes.  It makes sense to gain a little familiarity with the shops in the region you’re visiting for just those occasions.

Photo courtesy of Burdge and Associates.

If you’re tasting in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, this isn’t a big deal.  There are towns and main shopping routes where you can find everything you need; it’s not the Sahara Desert after all.  Of course there are shops in the town of Napa, Yountville and Healdsburg but many of them, if not most, are for tourist items, not necessities.  But Trancas Street in Napa and Route 101 in Santa Rosa are long stretches of shopping malls and big box stores.

So if you need Band-Aids, orange juice or some batteries, there are plenty of shops where you can make these purchases.  (A hint for wine tasters on a romantic getaway: There’s plenty of California sparkling wine to be found everywhere, but if you want some real Champagne, you can find it at one of those huge drug stores or in many grocery stores.  It’s not so easy in nearby wine shops, which tend to feature the local products.)

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Europe, it’s not quite as easy to find the basic necessities.  However, almost every village except the tiniest has a pharmacy, usually indicated by a green neon sign in the shape of a cross.  In the larger towns (and cities, of course) one of these pharmacies will be open all night.  For many of the other items you might need, look for a tabac in France or a tabacchi in Italy.  As might be expected, these little shops sell tobacco products.  But it’s also where you’ll find post cards, stamps, bus tickets, maps, an espresso to start the day and a grappa to end it.

It is also wise to prepare for emergencies.  You’re not going to go travelling in Wine Country armed with information about nearby hospitals or a doctor or dentist who will see you posthaste.  So make sure you know someone who does know or at least the emergency phone number.  Of course, it’s 9-1-1 in the United States but it’s 1-1-2 in France, 1-1-8 in Italy, and 0-0-0 in Australia.

It’s a good idea to have the number of your host (the hotel front desk or the friends you’re staying with) for some oddball needs.  For example, we once had a flat tire while we were tasting in Oakville.  Nobody at the winery we were at knew where we could get a new tire quickly, but the hotel concierge was able to help.

It’s always helpful to know where to get a wine stain out of a sports jacket or to find a deli for a picnic or the late night munchies.  Or a pizzeria, some therapeutic Häagen-Dazs, a bathing suit or an essential whatchamacallit.  So be prepared.

Mountain Wine Tasting

In an overly broad, but nonetheless true, pronouncement we can say that all wine comes from one of two places: hillsides and valleys.  Some, but not many, of these hillsides are actually mountains, but most are just large hills that the locals call Mt. This and Mt. That.  For example, there’s the famous Burgundies from Montrachet, which is Mount Rachet to anglophones and, quite frankly, is nothing more than a bump on the plain.

But sometimes, you may want to try some wines from mountain wineries.  If you’re going wine tasting in Napa/Noma, Valpolicella or the Languedoc or the Northern Rhone you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy wines from both upper and lower altitudes.

The Chappellet vineyards in winter.

Visiting wineries in the valleys is a relatively simple affair.  Get on the region’s main drag and drive along; you’ll find vineyards and wineries on either side of the road.  Wine tasting in mountainous regions is a bit trickier.  There is no main drag.  Wineries are harder to find and are usually further apart.  And the driving is considerably more difficult.

So if you plan to taste in the mountains, it’s a good idea to consider a few tips:

  • Know where you’re going. Of course, this is good advice throughout life, but it has double resonance in mountain wine tasting.  For one thing, we have found that GPS systems get a little lost up high where the “streets” are often little more than barely paved roads.  Also, there are often few signs to let you know that you’re actually headed in the right direction.
  • Plan your time. It takes time to drive up a mountain.  And once you get where you’re going, it takes time to get back.  Then, once you get to a winery up in the hills, you may find it’s the only one in the area, so your trip is for just one tasting.  Now, that’s not all bad.  We’ll take the drive anytime if the destination is Chappellet or Quintarelli, even if it takes all or most of the afternoon.   We’re not sure, though that we’d make such a drive for a winery we’ve never heard of.
  • Recognize the exceptions to the previous tip. There are mountains with a selection of wineries.  Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain, for example, offers a pretty broad selection of wineries at which you may taste.  Some of them, like Cain, Pride and Smith-Madrone are well worth a visit.  The same may be said of France’s Côte Rôtie, where there is, in fact, a small but drivable main road, the D386, along which you’ll find many excellent wineries and even some places to eat.
  • Speaking of which, bring your lunch. Noting the exception in the previous tip, there are unlikely to be many restaurants, cafés or even snack bars up in the mountains.  Unlike in the valleys, there is no pass-through traffic and not that many people live there.  So it’s not an economic proposition to open an eatery there.  You may have to drive a while for something to eat.  We were in the hills above Valpolicella and asked a winemaker where we might have lunch.  He pointed across the valley to a spot on the horizon atop the next ridge.  Down one mountain, ten miles in the valley and up another on we had a great meal.