Talking About Wine

Power Tasting has written before about the perils of wine snobbery.  It’s an affront to politeness and often to the people in front of whom the snob is showing off.  But conversing about wines with friends and acquaintances who are knowledgeable about wine is a pleasure that should not be avoided either.  In fact, with a certain circle of our friends, we know that every get-together is going to include discussions about wine.

Photo courtesy of Skurnick Wines & Spirits.

No one is trying to one-up the other.  Still, we can drop phrases like “a high degree of malo*” into conversation and know that we will be understood.  It is fascinating to sit around a dinner table and hear others expressing their opinions about aromas and tastes, some of which each person agrees with and others that lead to statements like, “Are you sure we’re drinking the same wine?”  We trust our own senses and have faith in those of our friends, so such a discussion is informative, not confrontational.

There are particular lessons to be learned when one person is particularly familiar with a specific wine or wines from lesser known grapes or regions.  We, for instance, can speak knowledgeably about Quebecois dessert wines, since we spend a fair amount of time in the Quebec  province.  And if someone else can compare them with, say, ice wines from Ontario or Germany, so much the better.

A few problems can arise when the conversation drifts towards wines.  If everyone in the room has a roughly equivalent degree of knowledge, that’s okay.  But it does risk slipping into rather boring discussions after a while.  This is even more the case if not everyone is at the same level or, even worse, some don’t really care about wine at all.  By comparison, imagine being in a room full of Yankee fans and not only you don’t root for the Bombers, but you don’t know left field from first base.  The line between knowledge and snobbery is a fine one and might differ depending on the observer.

The way to make a wine conversation more amenable for everyone is to avoid specialist terminology and talk about one’s own impressions.  Many people are in the dark when someone says that a wine evokes, say, warm buttered toast.  But when those same people are offered two wines from the same grape and asked to dig down a bit to differentiate them, their taste buds go to work.

If, for example, they are offered a California Chardonnay and a Chablis, they may be astonished to find out that they’re made from the same grape.  When asked what makes one smell and taste different from the other, they may bring up words like butter, apples and oak.  This puts everyone on the same plane.  We’ve known beginners who have tasted something subtle that the experienced wine people, attuned to what is supposed to be in a type of wine, have overlooked.

* It means that the wine has undergone a lengthy second malolactic fermentation, which turns rather austere malic acid to buttery lactic acid.


Most American wineries that we are aware of have names that include words like Vineyards, Estate or Cellars.  But Paumanok, on Long Island’s North Fork, doesn’t have one of those words; it’s just plain Paumanok.  That’s okay, in part because the word is Algonquian for Long Island. It’s a no-nonsense name for a winery that’s basically about the wines they serve, without a lot of frills.  If your purpose for visiting is also all about the wines, you’ll be happy there.  If you’re looking for a party atmosphere, not so much.

The Paumanok winery, with its tasting porch.

It starts with the architecture of the winery.  It’s a renovated old barn, simple and a little weather-beaten.  Big barns do reflect the agricultural history of the North Fork, where potatoes and duckling were once the main crops, not grapes.  Founded in 1983, Paumanok is a family-run enterprise.  The interior is also plain and simple: a wooden bar and an expansive though rather empty wooden floor.

The Adirondack chairs, where you can sip and watch the workmen tend to the vines.

But if you are visiting on a pleasant day, you don’t want to be inside anyway.  You want to be on the winery’s porch or near the vineyards, where Paumanok comes into its own.  You can sit at a table or in a field of Adirondack chairs, facing the vines.  You choose some wines to try, a server brings them to you and then you’re left alone to enjoy them.  Again, plain and simple; if you want a buddy to converse with you, bring your own.  The servers are informative but not chatty.

And to an extent, this straightforward approach is reflected in the wines as well.  As is the case with almost all Long Island vineyards, they make wine from a wide variety of grapes, both red and white.  Paumanok specializes in the Bordeaux grape varietals in their red wines.  Power Tasting doesn’t review wines, but we can say that we were particularly impressed by their white wines.  That’s quite a compliment coming from us, whose cellar is 90% made up of red wines.  The Sauvignon Blanc and especially the Chenin Blanc were our favorites.

[Pardon us for a bit of a rant.  Why do Long Island winemakers think they need to grow a dozen different grapes, when clearly the terroir there is supportive of only a few?  Make what you’re good at and don’t try to please everybody with everything.  And while we’re ranting, why don’t more vineyards grow Chenin Blanc?]

For those driving to the North Fork from the west, which is just about everyone, Paumanok is among the first you’ll encounter when you leave the Long Island Expressway, which makes it an excellent first stop (or last one on your way home).  For people from New York City, visiting Paumanok is like letting out a long sigh: “Aaah, we’ve made it”.  This good, solid winery with its good, solid wines sets a standard that the rest of the North Fork vineyards needs to live up to.


There is a town 13 km south of Vacqueyras and 22 km east of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south of France, which one might think it would be the center of the local wine trade.  In fact there are some nearby wineries, but they’re only part of the generic Mont Ventoux appellation.  The town is Carpentras and it is famous, but not for wine.  It is the place to go for another French specialty: black truffles.

These delicacies are prized by chefs and home cooks for their exquisite aroma of…what? Some say onions, others cabbage or forest floor.  They are earthy, mushroomy, wild and ultimately indescribable.  Some people like them in everything from salads to sauces; others don’t like them at all.  The people of Carpentras like them because they sell a lot of them, at rather high prices.

The Carpentras truffle market.  Photo courtesy of See Provence.

If you are in Provence on a Friday between late November and early March, you can visit the truffle market and then dine at any of the nearby restaurants all of whom, so it seems, specialize in three course truffle menus.

There are other reasons to visit the town and its surrounding area the rest of the year.  As noted, Carpentras is at the foot of Mont Ventoux (Mount Windy, in English, a name very well earned).  If you ever drive to the top of Mont Ventoux, you will encounter a lot of goats on the road on your way up and on the top of the mountain you’ll see the regional weather station.  One of the best known wines from this appellation is La Vielle Ferme, which has been internationally popular for over 40 years.  From what we’ve tasted, there’s been a great improvement in recent years and Mont Ventoux wines are a good value for the money.  Wine tasting here is very special, with this mammoth mountain hovering over you.

There are quite a few in-town attractions in Carpentras, but they are similar to many other spots in French Wine Country.  There’s a Roman arch, a former hospital (Hôtel Dieu) turned library that has architectural interest.  A cathedral.  Boutiques.  Interestingly, Carpentras was once a center of Jewish population and still hosts France’s oldest synagogue, in use since 1367.

Aside from the truffles, there are year-round markets featuring fruits and flowers.  The town is also known for a hard candy called berlingots, striped hard confections that were once thought to have medicinal value.  Anyplace that’s known for truffles, candy and wine has to be worth a visit!

A typical Carpentras Café.  Photo courtesy of

What sets Carpentras apart, in our opinion, is the lifestyle.  It is what you would expect a Provençal market town to be.  The town seems dedicated to la belle vie, with seemingly innumerable cafes and restaurants.  In good weather, which is most of the year, the terrasses are always full with people having a coffee, a glass of (local) wine, a lunch, a snack, an aperitif, a dinner, a digestif.  In other words, whatever time of year that you are there, you’re welcome to take a seat and feel that you’ve arrived in the heart of Provence.  Because you have.

Return or Not

One of the pleasures of wine tasting trips is discovering new wineries and the wines they make.  At the same time, if there is a winery in the area that you are visiting that you know you love, it’s a pleasure to return and try their wines again.  If you’re travelling to a sector of Wine Country where you’ve never been before, this distinction is lost; every winery is new to you.  But if you’re already familiar with an area, say Napa Valley or Burgundy, you do have to make some decisions.

If you had an infinite amount of time, you wouldn’t have to choose.  But most of us are visiting Wine Country for a limited period for each trip.  So many wineries, so little time!

Photo courtesy of eto.

Here are a few tips for choosing whether to return to favorite wineries or not.

  • Set a theme for your wine tasting trip. If you want to seek out wineries you don’t know, then make reservations accordingly.  The same applies if you just want to go to places where you know you have enjoyed their wines in the past.  Another twist might be to focus on specific grapes, such as Chardonnays or Zinfandels.  If you do, you may choose to return to one or more wineries where you know their Cabernet Sauvignons, but not their Chards or Zins, in order to learn how they do with other grapes.
  • Consider the time commitment. In many locales, the days of bellying up to the bar are over.  If you want to sample a winery’s latest releases (even more so, their reserve and library wines) you will do so at a seated tasting.  These are often accompanied by a tour.  These take more time, usually an hour and a half.  Thus, the number of wineries – new finds and old friends – is limited.
  • New wineries, or new to you? There aren’t many new wineries opening in Bordeaux, but there are plenty in other regions.  For example, we have been tasting the wines of Long Island’s North Fork for more than 30 years.  These days, whenever we take a tasting trip there, we find numerous recently established wineries or old ones that have changed hands. And there are some wineries that have been there for quite a while, but we never got to them.  It’s easy to specialize in new experiences on Long Island.
  • Go back, you might fall in love again. That was the name of one of Power Tasting’s earliest articles, and the advice is worth reinforcing.  Maybe there was a winery where once you didn’t enjoy their wines.  It might prove worthwhile to give them another shot.  Maybe that last time the winery just had a bad year, or your server didn’t know what he was doing, or you were simply in the wrong frame of mind.  Particularly if the winery has a good reputation, it might be worth your while to give them a second chance.