Taste new wine
In my previous blog “Time to Taste New Wines and Varieties – Part 1″, I described three options to help you find and taste new wines and varieties in 2012.
The options suggested included:
- - Take advantage of wineries, new flash sites or out of state retailers that carry wines you cannot find locally to taste and try new wines
- - Travel to wine regions to taste new wines and varieties
- - Identify one or more local wine shops and/or wine focused groups as an opportunity to taste new wines
In Part 1 the first option was discussed “Take advantage of wineries, new flash sites or out of state retailers that carry wines you cannot find locally to taste and try new wines”. This option requires that your state allows DtC shipments from wineries and/or retailers. As of the first blog, 38 states allowed direct to consumer shipment. I am happy to tell you that a 39th state (New Jersey) has passed legislation to allow direct to consumer shipments. (On a side note, Representative Kurt Schrader (D) Oregon has withdrawn his sponsorship of the CARE Act HR1161 – great news.)
We’re making progress!
In Part 2 let’s focus on the second suggestion, “Travel to wine regions to taste new wines and varieties”.
Southern New England Coastal Wine Trail
First, you don’t necessarily need to travel to far off places in order to try new wines. All 50 states now have wineries that you can visit and many may offer varieties that you have yet to try. For instance, in Southern New England you can follow the Coastal Wine Trail which stretches from Westerly, Rhode Island to the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Keep in mind that not all wineries produce Vitis Vinifera wines although many wineries will purchase grapes that cannot be grown locally and offer these wines along with locally grown based wines. Some may offer only locally produced or fruit wines. In any case, lots of options to explore.
If visiting wineries in North America often there is no need for a reservation, but you should confirm this by calling ahead or by checking locally before the visit. As an example, there are many wine alliances or similar organizations that provide information about the wineries in their AVA or Region such as the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that will have a listing of the wineries, location and often a description of the wines offered.
If on the other hand you plan on visiting international wineries, plan on making a reservation for a visit. Although some wineries are open during certain hours each day, many require a reservation. This may seem to be an annoyance, but the benefit is that you often will have the owner or winemaker pouring the wines and hosting a tour. One exception is that in some wine regions you will find cooperative tasting rooms. One example is in Gigondas in the Southern Rhone where you can stop in the center of town to taste. There are dozens and dozens of well made Cote de Rhones offered, both white and red. However, in order to remain neutral, the pourer will ask that you choose the wines you would like to taste. Simply indicate the type of wine you like – fruity, earthy, spicy, etc., and he/she will suggest several to choose from.
When is the best time to visit? That will depend upon what you are looking for … visiting off season means less crowds and more time to spend with the winery. Harvest time is very busy and often more crowds, but there are also many festivals or local activities. Several wineries will offer special dinners or celebrations. Often there are celebrations offered at holidays (Halloween). Lastly, there are opportunities to participate in picking and/or processing the grapes. Eagles Nest Winerey in Ramona near San Diego is a great example. Dennis and Julie Grimes offer multiple opportunities during the year to help in the harvest and vinification, design your own labels, celebrate a holiday or simply come by for an outdoor movie where Julie will serve pizza and you can purchase a bottle of their award winning wine to enjoy with the movie.
You might also consider staying at a winery or close by. For instance, in Sardon de Duero (approximately 100 miles north of Madrid) you can stay at Abadia Retuerta, where the old Abby has been fully renovated. There are many wineries in France, Italy, Germany and many other countries (including the US and Canada) that offer accommodations as well as fine food.
Abby at Abadia Retuerta
Another option for tasting and trying new wines is to take a wine or river cruise that focuses on wine. There are literally dozens of companies that specialize in wine cruises including Food & Wine Trails, Arbaster & Clarke Wine Tours Ltd. , or Fine Food and Wine Cruises. Others focus on wine river cruises such as Avalon Waterways, AmA Waterways, and France Cruises.
In any case, expect to visit no more than say 4 wineries per day, and this number should be less if you are driving. If you only like white or red, most wineries will accommodate the request if possible. Sometimes you will be offered a choice between tasting the higher volume wines versus special reserve wines. Tasting fees are sometimes free, but much more common they will range from $5 – $25 (reserve wines). Many will apply the tasting fee to the purchase of a bottle or some minimum purchase. Some will include the glass with the tasting fee.
Keep in mind that many wineries will offer six or more wines to taste, and several may offer a taste of wines not on the tasting list. The bottom line is that a visit to perhaps only two wineries could mean you are trying 12 to 20 wines. Assuming only a 1 ounce pour (29.6ml) that could be as much as 20 ounces (591.5ml) or approximately 3/4s of a 750ml bottle. Visiting 4 wineries could equate to 1.5 bottles. If these are 2 ounce pours, that’s 3 bottles of wine! Needless to say you may enjoy the wine but you won’t really be tasting much after the first few pours. So ensure you have a designated driver or hire a driver or service. These are available in every wine region
Regardless of whether you are driving or not, if you really want to “taste” new wines, practice the four S’s of responsible tasting, Swirl, Smell, Sip, Spit. Although the “spit” may seem vulgar to those who do not often visit wineries, it is the only way you can try and taste many new wines without getting tipsy. Further, many wineries appreciate the fact that you are there to taste their wines and not simply to get drunk. My suggestion: if you are traveling with a partner and you are driving (and spitting), ask for a single serving and share the taste. The winery will notice that you are there to taste their wines (and perhaps offer special wines not on the tasting list), your partner will imbib only half as much (so will be able to taste the wine), and you will save quite a bit by spending only half as much on the tasting. Getting drunk and obnoxious is not good for you or the winery. Another suggestion when visiting is to plan on a picnic since many wineries offer tables and really nice views. You can pick up a lunch at your hotel, local restaurant, on the road or at the winery ( many wineries do not offer food).
Keep in mind that wineries offer a taste of their wines as part of their business – it is the best way to showcase and sell you their wines. Although not as easy today to buy and carry the wines back as it used to be, there are many options. Here are four to consider:
- Purchase wines at the winery and have them ship them to you. This may or may not be possible depending upon where you reside. Based on the plethora of wine regulations in the US (frankly easier to buy a gun than it is a bottle of wine!), one winery may ship and another may not. Be aware, shipping from outside the US can be expensive.
- In many locations there may be other shipping options. For instance in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in Southern California you can use Safe Haven Wine Services. In this case you buy your wine and write down the name of the winery and number of bottles bought. Do this for each winery. Provide the information to Safe Haven and they will pick up your wines and ship them to you. You can save 15% if you take the wine to your hotel and they pick it up there rather than picking up at multiple wineries.
- Your in wine country! Buy a bottle or two and enjoy with a picnic lunch or in the evening.
- If shipping is not an option but you want to bring some wine back (keep in mind that several wineries offer some wines ONLY at the winery or through their wine clubs), purchase some wine skins. You can purchase a few either before the trip or at many of the wineries. These are leak proof single bottle carriers that you can put in your luggage. I have used them several times and never had one break. But if it does, it won’t spoil your cloths. The only caveat is to watch the weight. You will find that fees on small airlines are quite restrictive and the extra weight can be costly (I purchased a lightweight Balanzza luggage scale that allows me to precisely weigh my bags.)
Trying and tasting new wines can be a real pleasure and often an experience to remember especially when combining it with a trip to some place new.
In Part 3 I’ll focus on how to find and taste new wines at local wine shops and events.
Daou Vineyard Tasting Room
When visiting a wine region such as Paso Robles, how do you decide which wineries to visit (keeping in mind there are well over two hundred in San Luis Obispo County)? One might first identify those that are familiar such as J. Lohr Vineyards, Justin, or Tablas Creek. Another might be based on recommendations from those in the know to visit small lessor known wineries such as Adelaida Cellars, Oppolo Vineyards, and Hearthstone Vineyard & Winery. One more way is to discover a wine while dining in Paso Robles at a top restaurant such as Robert’s Restaurant and Wine Bar (1218 Pine Street, Paso Robles). Besides enjoying a wonderful meal and great hospitality, my waitress suggested a wine I had yet to try, a 2008 Daou Celestus (a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Verdot) from a relative newcomer, Daou Vineyards & Winery. This bottle was a great complement to the main course – beef stroganoff braised short ribs. There are several good restaurants in Paso Robles, but one not to miss is Roberts - highly recommended.
I decided to visit the winery the next day.
2009 Daou Celestus Tasting Notes: (from the winery)
The sight offers a dark cherry core with a bright ruby rim. Aromas of freshly pressed strawberries and marionberries dominate the nose followed by fine black pepper and a slight indication of shaved dark chocolate, finishing with intense aromas of vanilla bean. Fresh red fruit, particularly flavors of abundantly ripe raspberries, followed by the skins of freshly picked blueberries dictate the palate. The floral notes are driven by a fresh bouquet of lilacs and the structure is a pleasant balance of medium tannins and acidity enhanced by the proper selection of oak and toast levels.
90+ points – Stephen Tanzer International Wine Cellar, November 2011
The winery is really easy to find. From downtown (Spring Street) drive North to 24th street and take a left. Follow 24th as it becomes Lake Naciemiento Road. Take a left
View from Daou Vineyard Tasting Room
onto Adelaida Road, and then another left on Hidden Mountain Road. Altogether about a 15 minute ride from downtown Paso Robles. The first thing you will notice as you see the sign for Daou Vineyards is that you are driving a fairly steep straight road to a new winery location. During my visit the construction crews were still hard at work on the patio ( a little distracting, but Blake Brown, Tasting Room Associate made the visit memorable).
I am always impressed by tasting room personnel who are not only very hospitable, but also very knowledgable when it comes to the vineyard and the wines. In between pours, Blake provided some background regarding the winery and the unique location in the Adelaida Valley.
Daniel and George Daou (brothers) bought land that originally was part of the historic Hoffman Mountain Ranch Vineyard in 2007 with the intention of producing very high quality, low production Bordeaux blends as well as exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon. This site (now nicknamed Daou Mountain) has the the right mix of elevation, marine influence, and sun exposure to produce exceptional grapes to support their vision. Combine that with meticulous vinification and selection, I think they have a winning formula.
To learn more about Daou Vineyards and their wines, you can sign up for the Daou Newsletter, follow Daou on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, read their blog, or become a member of Club Daou.
One of the pleasures of a visit to Paso Robles is the ability to explore dozens of small production winerys and taste the excellent Rhone and Bordeaux blends, which Paso is known for. One of those visits included a stop at Hearthstone Vineyard & Winery, located on Vineyard Drive, a snaking road off of Route 46 West of Paso Robles.
Hearthstone Vineyard & Winery was established in 1999 by Hoy Buell, a Cal Poly graduate and horticulturist who decided to focus on grape growing in the Adelaida Valley. Hearthstone’s first vintage debuted in 2003 four years later.
Today at 1400 feet, the vineyard includes several varieties including selected clones of Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Roussanne. Some of these are offered as a single variety wine, while most are carefully blended by Rhone or Bordeaux variety.
At Hearthstone there is also strong focus on sustainable farming. Deep irrigation is used minimally and organic fertilizers are applied to keep vines healthy. Only the basic necessities for balanced growth are supplied as vines adjust gradually to the natural elements. Mr. Buell is obviously applying many lessons learned from his ownership and management of Greenheart Farms in Arroyo Grande.
On my visit I spent some time speaking with Josslyn Wagster, the Tasting Room Manager. Josslyn was kind enough to pour several very well made Rhone and Bordeaux blends as well as single varieties. One of the great advantages of visiting small production wineries (besides the wine of course!), is the hospitality and knowledge of those pouring the wines. If you’re into wine, there is nothing better than an engaging conversation about the wines, location, and history with someone local. At Hearthstone, Josslyn made the visit both enjoyable and educational.
Unfortunately, one limitation of small production wineries is that they simply don’t produce that much wine, which means unless you can visit locally it is difficult to find their wines, and due to security limitations today, there are only so many options for purchasing and carrying some of these hard to find wines back home. One suggestion (thanks Josslyn!) when in Paso Robles is to use Safe Haven Wine Services. Here you can purchase wines at one or more wineries and Safe Haven will pick up the wines, package them, and then ship them back for you (except if you live in AR, KY, MD, MS, MA, NH, PA, SD or UT – thanks to a continuation of a three-tiered monopoly).
If you’re traveling in Southern California, you can find Hearthstone Vineyard wines available at several restaurants and local retail stores or visit them at 5070 Vineyard Drive (leave the 101 at Route 46 heading West and continue about 5 miles. Take a right at Vineyard Drive, Heathstone Vineyard will be on your right about 4 miles in).
With a very successful 30 year history and an annual 50,000+ case production of Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) and other single grape varieties (Red: Tempranillo, Malbec, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot / White: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier), Justin Winery is remains a must visit when staying near, passing through, or staying in Paso Robles.
Although a bit removed from downtown itself (located at the end of Chimney Rock Road in the Adelaida Valley) on the West side of Paso Robles, its definitely worth the ride. Besides some outstanding wines (which I will get to in a moment), the grounds include an inn, restaurant, well-maintained gardens and place to picnic as well as for those of us really into wine, examples of various trellis systems including one designed and implemented in the Justin vineyard itself.
One of the more iconic wines produced is the Justin Winery ISOSCELES Bordeaux blend (first production year was 1987), somewhat akin to a left-bank Pauillac or Margaux with a different blend each year of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc (and perhaps Petit Verdot). Not sure where the name came from except to say that the definition of “Isosceles” as a triangle is having two sides of equal length. Perhaps the origin for naming it Isosceles was the concept of equal parts of each variety (although in practice the Cabernet Sauvignon normally plays the major part of the blend). In any case, this blend has been lauded with a London International Wine & Spirit Competition’s Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy in 1994 for the Best Blended Red Wine Worldwide and named number 6 wine in the world by Wine Spectator in 2000 for the 1997 ISOSCELES offering.
Learn more about Justin Winery Wines
However, in this very competitive industry great wines are not enough. In the most recent Justin Winery Newsletter Justin Baldwin explained, “I am often asked what the most important thing at a winery is. The answer is easy – great wines! However, that answer is always followed up by a list of the next most important items on the list. They are in order of importance – marketing, marketing, and marketing!”
Unlike some owners, Mr. Baldwin has put into action that which he has preached – from hiring a well known and successful luxury wine brand marketer – Jason Shorrock as VP, Director of Sales and Marketing, to a strong Social Media effort including Facebook and Twitter, its own Justin Winery blog, Smart Links (using QR codes), its own Newsletter, Wine Club (Justin Wine Society), hosting events, charitible giving, and certainly its bed and breakfast and restaurant.
While all of the marketing activity above provides brand recognition and buzz for the winery, at the end of the day personal attention, friendly service and knowledgeable staff are essential to building a strong wine brand. I can happily say that this is exactly what I experienced when visiting the tasting room earlier this Fall. Not only were the wines all well made, but the staff were enthusiastic about their product and their company.
“To belong in the company of the finest wines in the world” is Justin Baldwin’s mission statement.
I can confidently say that he has put together a strong team and the right strategy to achieve what he set out to do. So when visiting Paso Robles be sure to take the drive out to Justin. You’ll enjoy the grounds, the courteous staff, and certainly the wines.
Late in 2010, the Justin Winery was sold
by Deborah and Justin Baldwin to Roll International Inc., owned by Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick. Unlike many recent distressed winery sales, the sale of Justin Winery was more of good timing for the Baldwins and Mr. Resnick. Although no longer owners of the winery, Deborah and Justin plan to stay on and manage the day to day operations. We can only hope that the hard work, keen insights, and current mission will continue under its new ownership.
Courtesy Paso Robles City Website
It wasn’t very long ago that I mentioned I was heading to Paso Robles to visit some wineries. A colleague at work responded “oh, so your heading to Spain?”. OK for those into wine we all know Paso Robles is just about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but to many Paso Robles is still somewhat of an unknown.
Compared to Sonoma or Napa Valley, Paso Robles is very young in wine terms having been known more for its cattle and cowboys until only a few years ago. Sure, there have been wineries in Paso Robles for some time, but until just a few years ago that number was closer to a dozen versus the couple of hundred you will find today. Whether you drive North, South, East or West from Paso, you will run into one winery after another. My kind of vacation spot!
There’s plenty of exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and Pinot Noir (to the East), as well as for whites, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But there is another unique aspect of wine country in Paso Robles that focuses on other well known and some not so well known grapes from the Rhone Valley. If you are a wine buff you know that in the wine village of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape (about a 1/2 hour North East from Avignon in Southern France), up to 13 red and white grapes can be used in the blend. Its no surprising then that although some of the offerings are a single variety, many very well made Rhone blends are found in the tasting rooms of Paso Robles.
Lots of delicious Syrah (likely the most planted Rhone variety in California often co-fermented with Viognier) can be found across the valleys, but also some lesser known reds such as Grenache, Counoise, and Mourvedre, as well as for the whites Viognier (a great alternative to Chardonnay), Roussanne, Marsanne and Picpoul Blanc.
Each brings its own special quality to bear on the wines such as licorice and black pepper for Grenache, chocolate and plum for Mourvedre and sweet spice and soft tannins for Counoise. Similarly for the whites, apricot and violets from the Viognier, honey and pear from Roussanne, and melon and sweet spice from Marsanne.
There is such a focus on the Rhone varieties that a group of wineries call themselves the Rhone Rangers. Some of these are fairly well known such as J. Lohr Vineyards, Justin Vineyards, and Robert Hall, while others are much smaller, boutique wineries such as Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch Vineyard and Jada. For a complete list I suggest visiting The Rhone Rangers.
Unlike Napa Valley and somewhat Sonoma, Paso Robles is still pretty laid back. Many of the wineries offer a complimentary or $5 tasting fee (refundable with purchase), although some do charge more for a tasting of their reserve wines. However, across all of the wineries I visited (and there were many , I found the people pouring to be friendly, very knowledgeable and passionate about their wine.
Whether you are partial to red or white varieties, table or port (try Roxo Cellars, – the tasting room is right downtown on the square) you won’t be disappointed!