Life is better on the corner, the place where great wines meet reasonable prices!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

10 Tasting Room Tips for Planning your next Wine Tasting Trip

 Wine tasting as a "vacation focus" is a growing segment of the travel industry, in no small part spurred on by the popularity of the film Sideways (2004). The month of May is typically the time of year when many folks are thinking about a road-trip and many vineyards and wineries will open up their tasting rooms to the public, where you may be allowed to sample a handful of wines for a fee some are a upwards of $30 per tasting for some of the top producers in Napa Valley, while most tend to be in the $10 range per person.

Many wineries but not all will "refund" the price of their tasting fee if you purchase some wine from them, but if you are a member of their wine club your tasting will be free in most cases. On the other if you belong to a wine-club like I do in Paso Robles, who gives no quarter to Wine Club members, in other words you are just like everyone else who walks into the tasting room, just one of the teeming masses and you will pay tasting fees and if want to keep that tasting glass that will be extra too.

It is also the practice of many wineries to offer a wavier of these fees if minimum wine purchase is made or if you join their club [see respective winery for details]. Many also offer educational tours of the facilities which are terrific for those who want to get "beyond the bottle". Some of the traditional hotspots for wine tasting are, of course, Napa and Sonoma counties in California, the Willamette Valley in OR, Walla Walla in WA, Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, and Chianti Classico [Tuscany] in Italy. However, in the last decade or two, vineyards around the world have begun to produce excellent wine and are now on the wine-tasting vacation circuit: Australia (Barossa Valley), Argentina (Mendoza, Chile (Maipo) and South Africa (Stellenbosch) and other places in the states I would recommend, New Yorks Finger Lakes Ava, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara [Solvang].

1. WINE CLUBS:  So there you are in the wine tasting room where you will see and hear offers to become a wine club member, this is part of every wineries way of having you become a regular customer and many times it's a great opportunity to stock up on wine you won't see in the grocery store. Especially, if you find the quality of the wine you just quaffed was quite amazing and you want to relive that experience again and again [since it maybe sometime before you are back that way again]. Another great thing about a "wine-club" is that if you live close by, you can really benefit from going to pick-up parties, concerts and various other "cool" activities many wineries having going on during the summer months.

What to do: Okay I am going to make this decision a little easier for you. Most wineries will give you a decent discount on your purchases if you join the wine club right then and there and bring the cost [per bottle] down to what you expect to find in a retail setting. Most wine club agreements will allow you to cancel, after receiving one or two shipments with the average shipment being 2-4 bottles per quarter. So don’t wince the next time you hear the words, "join our wine club" embrace the wine club and you’ll save on average 20-30 % off a wine you would most likely purchase anyways. So if you do join the wine club, remember it does not have to be forever, sometimes you just have to let go of one club to be on another new favorite [there's nothing wrong with that]. Since were on the topic of purchases it's good to remember to bring a large cooler with you to keep your wine cool while it sits in the car, keep the windows cracked open a little, it can get real warm in wine country.

2. TRIP PLANNING: I’ve read Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher former Open that bottle Columnists at the WSJ who recommend for planning your next trip to wine country that it's best to "not have a plan", but instead to just randomly drive through wine country and show up to any tasting room you may find open. I thought to myself, "umm, while this may have a certain "carefree" appeal, it will most likely end in disappointment." But of course you are free do as you like, but I frankly would not recommend their advice in this case.

If you subscribe to this method of finding a new winery, okay but in my view and in the words of Molly Hatchet, you’re "Flirtin’ with Disaster". Often times when it comes to finding a new winery or producer that I've only read about and having never tried their wines, I make plans to see them while I'm in "wine-country" I believe that just makes much more sense to approach it that way and please believe me a little planning will go a long way to you and everyone else you encounter having a much better time.

One wine country trip I planned for a group of friends went so well they still speak glowingly about it today, that said I recommend doing a little research ahead of time. This can be done by getting a wine country map of the AVA you will be visiting or you can look it up online for example, just googling in something like "wine tasting Napa" will take to places where you can scheduling tours, making appointments ahead of time, and possibly make arrangements to see some of the behind the scenes goings-on which tend to be of great interest [especially if this if your first time going wine-tasting].

By doing this small bit of planning it will tell you which places have tasting rooms in first place, when they are open, or if they are by appointment only. Don’t be discouraged if they are by appointment-only, [it's not an obstacle, it's just a tool to manage their time] this can usually be arranged via email. Order your wine country map ahead of time [or print it out] and bring it with you on the trip. This will allow you preview the wineries you plan to visit before your trip, so you are somewhat familiar with the area and it helps you visualize your itinerary for each day, even if you have GPS. It's is helpful wineries with relatively close proximity. So you can do build an itinerary for yourself, for example day 1 we will go to here and here, day 2, here and here, etc. I would also strongly recommend that you only plan to visit 4 to 5 places in a day, you will have a much better time and enjoy the wines much more. Lastly, make some dinner reservations ahead of time; this will save you a lot of frustration and make you look like a local. OpenTable is a great resource for this and will earn you some points towards discounts.

3. APPOINTMENTS:  This is one facet of wine tasting you will invariably run into and is often done because some wineries don’t have a tasting room or they don’t have the staff to accommodate a regular M-F tasting schedule [winery staff and winemakers are some of the busiest and hardworking folks I know]. Like I have previously mentioned above, don’t be discouraged by having to make an appointment. This can be some of the best times you will have tasting wine, because often times the winemaker or proprietor is the one hosting your appointment and they are very eager to give you their wrapped attention and can interact with you on a much higher level, in comparison to a crowded tasting rooms with a novice tasting room assistants who has just served over a hundred pours before you got there.

Speaking of pours, the pours at appointments are typically more generous, which to me really gives you a better opportunity to evaluate the wine fairly [but of course if you are the one driving, please spit and ask for small pours]. Another benefit of appointments is being able to taste just about everything they have available, unlike the average tasting room experience where you are only allowed to taste what is on the menu for the day. You never know they may just give you "sneak-peek" of the new vintage via a barrel sample. Make sure you keep your appointment, call ahead to remind your host of your arrival and show up on time and if you have to cancel please call them at least day ahead, that is just good form. Another thing to keep in mind, is that some appointments are in their barrel-room which is a very cool 57 degrees, while great for maturing wine, its can be a little uncomfortable, so take a jacket with just in case, even if it's 80 degrees outside. This happened to me once while at Patricia Green Cellars in Oregon, us and the other couple who were at the appointment were quite cold, they especially since they had only sunny-day garments, my wife and I fared a little better with our sweaters, but it was still cold.

4. ARRIVE EARLY: Another good rule of thumb regarding a tasting room visits is to go early [the popular places will fill up fast and this will minimize your experience], I can not stress this point enough, please don't wait till mid-afternoon, that is only a recipe for getting least out of your visit, as some wineries are "super-popular" and you may not make it to the [tasting-area] bar at all. Most will open by 10 or 11 in the morning and they start closing up by 5 in the evening, this why I recommend only going to 4 to 5 places in day as the short tasting schedule of most places may catch you off guard and you end up rushing.

5. DRINK OR SPIT: Another good rule of the thumb to follow; make up your mind beforehand, if you are going to drink or spit, as one you has to the driving. If you don't feel comfortable spitting, may I recommend a heavy breakfast, something starchy will do nicely and stay hydrated [make sure to have a designated driver] and ask for small pours. But if you are going to spit, then make sure you are near one of the wine spittoons on the bar, which festoon most tasting rooms like the scene from Frass Canyon [aka; Fess Parker] in the movie "Sideways."

Don't feel bad if you don't like the wine, just pour it out and move onto the next wine in their line-up or feel you must drink the whole amount poured [if asked, I just say, "that wasn't my cup of tea or that I'm not a fan of that style]. By the way, while you’re in between pours please don’t pour the water sitting on the bar to rinse your glass or allow the tasting room staff to do that either; this will only dilute your next pour [ideally you only want to rinse your glass with wine].

On the water side of the equation pleases do stay hydrated and drink plenty water, preferably after the tasting and grab a cracker or two. Better yet have a picnic in between different wineries, many wineries have a great place to do that and some will have any where from a full lunch menu to just snacks or you bring your own. If you could remember while your out-n-about in wine country; that your tasting room attendant may have just been pummeled by a large [rowdy] limo group before you arrived, so give them a chance to warm up.

6. WHICH TASTING MENUS: In my experience if a reserve tasting and a regular tasting or all red and all white menu is offered and if with someone you don't mind swapping spit with, then I would recommend getting one of each, this way you can really contrast and compare their wines and get more bang for the buck. On occasion, the "regular" menu is the mediocre wine, so skip it by asking for the reserve tasting if there is one. This an opportunity [ideal for those traveling in pairs] to just ask for one glass and pay one tasting fee, you both get to taste the wine and again more bang for the buck [spliting the tasting fee and the pour], which is a perfectly acceptable practice.

Another point to remember is many times the tasting fee will be reimbursed if you make a purchase and I recommend making a purchase of at least one bottle if you liked the wine. Another great idea is if there is a bottle you particularly like then bring with you for dinner later. Most places charge a modest corkage fee, (What is a Corkage Fee?) compared with menu prices, for example the Paso Robles Inn does NOT charge a corkage fee for any wine you may have purchased from a local winery and bring with you to enhance your dinning experience. That's a smoking hot deal, by the way this place is great, the service, food and the atmosphere, you just can't go wrong.

7. SHIP OR HOLD:  This will mainly be determined by what method you may have arrived at your destination. For example if you drove, you can save yourself some money on shipping which by the way is to starting to shoot up and the price varies greatly [which is something I can't figure out]. You would think UPS or other shipper like theirs would have a standardized fee, but go figure. If you've flown to your destination, you will most likely opt to have your wine shipped home, especially since you can only take so many bottles back in your luggage without additional fees [and carry on, forget about it]. If shipping home I would recommend sending it to a work address, because the shipper will need to have someone sign for your wine and shippers [like UPS] don’t like to wait too long for you to come to the door and have long windows for residential delivery and you don’t want the hassle of having to arrange for another pick time, while your wine is jostled around in the back of hot steamy truck. If you only plan to buy a few bottles you can easily put it in your "checked" luggage, [just watch the weight] which I have done successfully many times without anything other than my clothing protecting them from breakage. I brought nearly a case home in my luggage from Italy and not even one casualty, knock on wood.

8. WINES NOT SOLD RETAIL: One other thing to consider is to ask for the wines which are not sold outside of the tasting room; if they are of a good caliber I would recommend purchasing those bottles over a wine which is available via your retail wine store shelf.  Many times it is because their wine is so allocated you have buy what you can right then and there or wait on a list for a year or more. Which is what you will experience if you visit  Turley Wine Cellars in Paso Robles as many of their wines are sold only direct to the consumer in the tasting room or you can buy them online if you are a "Mailing List" member.

9. OFF THE TASTING MENU: It has been my experience many times during a tasting, if your hosts sees you have a genuine interest in their wines, they will offer some wine which may not be on their current tasting menu. You also may just want to ask your tasting room attendant, if there is a possibility of tasting one of the new releases not yet on the list. Often times this practice will reward your palate with a delightful surprise and you may walk out with a few extra great bottles of wine.

10. HAVE A BUDGET:  This is a very good idea, if you’re like me it is far too easy to go overboard. I recommend the idea of taking a certain amount of cash just for your wine purchases alone. When you run out of cash, you can’t purchase anymore wine. This will cause you to really be more focused and  fastidious about what you want to purchase and help you zero in the ones you just can’t leave without.

As you may be able to see from the comments section this is a repost, cleaned up and updated for a new wine tasting season. If you have any additional tips please feel free to comment. As someone who's seen his fair share of tasting rooms, it's my hope that these tips may come in handy before you plan your next trip to wine country. Cheers!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Chardonnay Conundrum; Ghost Pines Chardonnay 2007

Okay folks as you know I've reviewed quite a few chardonnays over the past month and I have another one to bring to your attention today. It is from the folks at Louis M. Martini in Healdsburg, in northern California, where Mr. Martini purchased 178 acres of land in the eastern hills of Napa Valley. This plot of land acquired its name as a tribute to the native grey pines, which some have thought to look like spirits lurking about at dusk.

However before I jump into the review please permit me a small aside, I want to speak with those folks in the audience who may find themselves in a Chardonnay Conundrum, which can basically easily be defined a couple of ways. First there's anyone who subscribes to the notion that New World Chardonnay is nothing more than over-oaked plonk. You know who you are, gathered around the wine-bar, sneering at California Chardonnay dismissively and deriding folks who like a little oak and Malolactic [MLF] touches in their wine and on the other side of this so-called conundrum you have everyday folks that really love Chardonnay that has done some time in [evil] new French-oak and has hung out with Malolactic Fermentation. So is there really a "conundrum", I don't think so as their plenty of choices in the wine market places for these two very different styles of Chardonnay. Still there is a lot of sniping and back-biting among folks who consider themselves "insiders" who will dismiss anyone that does not see their favorite style of Chardonnay as being superlative.

Naked-Chard Club: I've wondered about this movement towards austerity and leanness in wines made here in California. Read this snippet of what I found on the Wine Speculator site which I have linked above under the word Chardonnay: They call think of themselves as the The Minimalists" and describe themselves this way; "We are winemakers who prefer not to manipulate the pure "blank slate" of Chardonnay  and we are attracting a wider audience. We are a small contingent of California Chardonnay makers who now embrace an aesthetic that shuns new oak and emphasizes bright acidity." Too funny, sounds like my philosophy prof from college, sitting on the desk, in his corduroy jacket, bushy-hair and Birkenstock's waxing ever so eloquently against the excesses of [evil] capitalism.

While it may be true that the popular style leans toward high ripeness, oaky and tropical fruits [where wines are sometime as cloying as your garden variety lounge drink] and this has certainly been an unfortunate trend in the over-produced bulk wine market. I don't think labeling every New World [specifically California] Chardonnay as inherently flawed is a fair evaluation of all chardonnay made in the golden-state. But this is exactly the position [and the problem] that many of those who think of themselves as having an "educated" [the insiders] palate will tell you. I know just writing about this subject will not win me any fans with wine-snobs, but I don't care, it needs to be said and that is why I'm attempting to hammer home the point, "that all New World Chardonnay is not made in the Chateau Two by Four style" and neither will you necessarily feel like you're drinking a pool of warm butter from the movie theatre spigot waiting to be drizzled over stale popcorn either.

It's too funny because I mingle with these folks on a semi-regular basis and hearing the wine-cooler chatter, I've found that it's indeed trendy [sorry you lost me at trendy] and regarded as some-how more noble to "dislike" New World Chardonnay and dismiss it out of hand.

If you find yourself speaking to someone with this mindset [POV] and in conversation you happen to mention that you like or adore a certain American Chardonnay [say, Rombauer], they may not say it to your face but honestly they're thinking "my what a pedestrian palate you have" or that you have just arrived from the school of the uninitiated [short-bus].

On the other hand, if want to be one of the cool kids, just tell them how much you love "un-oaked" Chardonnay or perhaps explain you are a fan of a little village in Chablis
which produces picture-perfect fruit-only driven Chardonnay, where the wines will rarely go through malolactic fermentation or be exposed to any oak and you're in like flint. You'll will have automatically become their best friend and be given membership into their snob-tastic club.

It's precisely implications such as I've alluded to above which may be found on many a wine review [not this one] websites or places where enophiles have discussions about the purity of Chablis style Chardonnay. Though I appreciate [assume] these are not their exact words, still it's that premise which causes me to openly rebel and question this supposed "universal truth" that the New Generation of New World
Chardonnay begins and ends without the presence of any oak influence or malolactic fermentation.

Honestly there is nothing wrong with that [Chablis] type of wine and sometimes depending on what I may be eating I will prefer that style of Chardonnay myself, but on the other hand you won't find me running around bashing Chablis either, though it tends to have a generally austere, with blazing acidity. This type of Chardonnay is NOT going to be your cocktail type wine or one you want to open when you just want to unwind at the end of hard day. So, if you were looking to fill that empty glass covered container, which says "break in the case of an emergency" sorry in my opinion a Chablis type of Chardonnay will never due.

Okay folks it's time to get down to the review, [see me stepping down from the proverbial soapbox] one of the primary purposes of this blog, which is to evaluate wine and make recommendations. So here we go, like I mentioned in the very first paragraph, the wine in the review spotlight today is the Ghost Pines 2007 Chardonnay. The Ghost Pine Wine Ambassador who has been reading this blog and I have been having a few conversations about Chardonnay, so I told their wine-ambassador once I seen a bottle of this wine in the store I would pick a bottle up for review, so here it is.

Swirly-swish: After putting a slight chill on the wine and uncorking the bottle and pouring a few ounces into my glass, giving it a swirl, tipping it toward the light, I found a lightly golden colored core and a straw colored rim.

Sniff-Snort: Abundant aromas flowing from the glass of freshly baked-pear turnover and apple tarts, fig with some deliciously enticing citrus fruits notes.

Sip and Slurp: After splash-down, this wine delightfully combines vibrant acidity with fruity apple and citrus intensity. Just wave after wave of tropical fruits and freshly buttered toast making for nice transition to the crowd pleasing finish.

Grape and ABV:  100% Chardonnay, produced from three of the best places where Chardonnay thrives in California, thus producing a nice blend of 25% Sonoma, 35% Napa and 40% Monterey. The wine weighed in at a very reasonable 14.2% ABV and well integrated.

Winemakers Note: To create a more complex mouth-feel, a portion of the wine underwent sur lies aging and was influenced by oak. 100% of our Chardonnay completed malolactic fermentation, contributing a buttery texture along with deep, layered flavors

Price and where to Purchase: I picked this bottle up at my local Ralphs in San Diego but you can also find this in in plentiful supplies at a local BevMo near you and they charge $19.99 per bottle. The price I paid for mine was only $12.99 as they had it mis-marked. The scanned price was $14.99 and if I had bought six I could have saved an additional 10% [everyday discount] which would have amounted to more than another $1 off per bottle and sometimes they even have a super wine saver where you can get 20% off a six pack of all the same or mix and match. As a friendly reminder not all grocery stores are created equal, some will carry better-labels so be a savvy-shopper.

Other Voices: In case my opinion didn't sway you at all, had this to say about the '07 Ghost Pines Chardonnay: This wine exhibits plenty of pineapple, nectarine, pear and peach characteristics; fresh, lively and crisp with a touch of oak and gave this wine 88 points. I know not quite the ringing endorsement you may have hoped for if you are 90 plus kind of shopper, not sure price was part of the score achieved. Price points are not something that all reviewers take into account in their review process. You really have to read the fine details closely to understand their scoring criteria [print publications].

What's the Score: Hey point seekers here's my score if your interested: I gave this wine a fat 91 points on the CCWB 100 point scale. The QPR [quality-price-ratio] is through the roof at the $12-14 price range.

My Recommendation: This is a wonderfully well made wine that won't disappoint anyone except the anti-oak crowd. It's not your everyday big oaky, butter Chardonnay. In fact it's is quite the opposite, being balanced, having a refined note of butter (from malolactic fermentation) which is skillfully integrated into the mix and to which I say, "nicely done". So I would definitely grab a few the next time you are in the wine shop or at your local grab and go [grocery store]. This wine is head and shoulders over other Chardonnays in the $10 and under category. So until next time sip long and prosper, cheers!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A BIG "Thanks" to all my Readers, you're the best!

Hello everyone I can't believe it has been almost 2 years since I started this blog, and wow things have changed so much for me in regards to finding my voice, putting together a clear consistent review process, recieving more wines for review, gaining some credibility amoung some of my peers, attending trade tastings and conferences to enhance my exposure to a greater variety of wine, working with some great PR professionals and most importantly gaining some readership, with some great feed back from my readers. I also see I have an international audience as well and can hardly believe some of the places in the world where my blog is being looked and hopefully read. Some of you just lurk out their and that's fine [I'm just glad you are there]. However, I would continue to encourage to everyone to feel free to disagree or celebrate some of my conclusions, as I welcome and look forward to every comment I receive.

Just to show that as readers of this blog, you're in very good company, the content you read here appears to be providing some relative and important dialogue on the subject of great wine for great prices. I've included a snippet of this article entitled, "Wine authors that just stood out in 2010" below which listed this blog as trending very well for the first quarter of 2010 and over tenfold from this time last year. I was very surprised and happy to see that this blog had made this very auspicious list of wine bloggers who are also trending higher in valuation and readership. However, you still will not find my blog in the top 165 wine blogs, apparently this blog is on the other list which is not visible, and the total is list size is 380. I have no idea where this blog sits numerically on the list, but I am very thankful to you my readers that the trend of increased readership and valuation of this blog is moving in a very positive direction.

"Here is the quarterly ranking of web sites. Webmasters need not apply as the contest includes all sites. The table shows only the 165 ‘best’ — ‘best’ is evaluated with public website metrics. These figures permit to include all sites — not just blogs. Here below is a story of the poll and an analysis of the results." -Estelle Platini of the Blog Cellarer.

She went on to say, "These sites currently enjoy public recognition and more readers. The sites whose valuations increased tenfold in the past 12 months are:"

» Wine Whore,

» Cuvee Corner,

» 1winedude,

» Oenologic again,

» The Crushed Grape Report.

After reading her post I looked into the Google Analytics page which monitors the readership of this blog and indeed it showed a significant increase in traffic from this time last year. It does appear that this blog does stand in the crowd of so many different wine blogs and winery blogs that talk about wine and wine culture. So at this juncture I wanted to say publically to everyone who has even spent a moment on this blog, those who've taken the time to dialogue with me about the content, and for those who took my advice and grabbed some of the wine I've recommended, here is a huge Thank You!

Until next time I wish you all well and leave you with this parting thought from one of our "founding" fathers, Benjamin Franklin who was quoted to have said, “Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance” and indeed it does. So again I lift a glass to you all and say cheers!

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