We have attended a few wine tastings at wineries over the years, but I must admit, a recent trip to Napa was a surprise.
Our previous wine tasting experiences have mostly been in France, where you were normally handed a wine glass, paid a fee, were shown the way to the wine cellars and invited to taste to your heart’s content. There were no pre-measured three ounce portions, no pre-selected wines and the wine was artfully displayed in candle lit caves on oak barrels, each wine with a brief history and age of the wine, along with a spitoon at each station. And no washrooms!
This hard learned experience tamed our wine tasting to wine tasting, but still unsupervised and unmeasured. We enjoyed the ambiance, the experience, and sometimes bought a bottle or two of the wines we enjoyed.
Fast forward to the North American wine tasting experience.
Our experience in North America is somewhat limited to Niagara regional wines, Southern California wines at Temecula and of course, premiere California wines at Napa Valley.
The North American experience is totally different to the French experience.
Niagara peninsula wineries use the ‘total experience’ to get potential wine buyers to visit their wineries. This means rather elaborate facilities, including some of the best restaurants in the region offering everything from pub fare to high end a la cart or multi course tasting menus. Of course a tasting menu is an ideal way to show case your wines. Wine tours are also available, but these are group tours with a tour guide explaining every step of the wine making process and measured three ounce tastings of wines selected by the vintner. A wine tasting at one of these wineries can be a very pleasant afternoon outing surrounded by vineyards, seated at a table on a covered patio enjoying food and drink.
The wines are also quite drinkable and reasonably priced. We often buy Canadian wines as our house wine; we enjoy Konzelman or Henry of Pelham from the Niagara region, or Pelee Island from an island of the same name. All three are light very drinkable Pinot Noires.
The Southern California wine tasting experience, specifically at Temecula, is very California. The wineries here also seem to offer an experience, and each winery is an easy drive from the last to next. There are several at Temecula. I don’t recall a wine tour per se, but I do recall wines tastefully displayed on either tables or barrels with lots of stocked wines on all the surrounding walls. Each winery seemed to have either long tasting tables or a bar where you could buy wines to taste. There seemed to be a much more relaxed approach to which wines and how many three ounce portions of one or more wines you chose to taste. While some food was avaiable, these wineries tended to offer small bites, crackers and dips, etc. And of course, you were encouraged to buy a few bottles of your favorites.
And this kind of presentation and the close proximity to other wineries in the area promotes kind of a pub crawl atmosphere. You stop at several, taste several, and roll onto the next winery.
And then there is Napa.
This is serious wine in a serious region and comes with serious rules for wine tasting.
There are so many wineries in Napa that the common practice here is to include at least three wineries each day of your stay. We spent two full days and a travel day at Napa and visited Rutherford Hill Winery the first afternoon.
Maybe because we had spent several hours in the car having arrived from San Francisco, this was probably the least favorite of our choices. It was also an exceptionally hot day and they only offered outdoor seating with oscillating fans. We actually wound up inside the winery (not normally allowed) and drank our portions of a ladder of three wines selected by Rutherford, there was no tour offered. It felt nice to be cool and inside, we did not buy any wines.
The wine tasting next day started with Opus One Winery.
To say ‘over the top’ is a total understatement. If you are familiar with Opus One, it is a world famous wine of absolute quality and so it could be nothing less. Restaurant prices are upwards of $600, and that would be the lesser wines. Opus One is much celebrated, a wine that was developed in partnership with Phillip Rothchild and Robert Mondavi. Opus One it is probably the jewel of Napa Valley.
The wine tasting was impressive, starting with the grounds and buildings, reminiscent to me, of a giant space ship. The reception area is cool, quiet and marble. The tasting is hosted and you are escorted to a private (albeit glass walled) wine tasting room, overlooking rows and rows of vines.
We were offered a brief explanation of the blend of wine, how it’s made and stored and then presented with a ladder of four glasses of Opus One wines. I can’t remember the years, but I’m guessing starting with a vintage probably five years old and then moving up to 2022. We were also offered a plate of small hors d’oeuvres to complement the wine.
The wine tasting ended with a tour of the wine cellar and the roof top, which is a beatifully crafted giant gazebo. Both impressive and beautiful. My brother bought several bottles of Opus One, including temperature controlled shipping back to San Diego. We’ll definitely be looking to have some the next time we visit!
The next on the tour was Caymus Winery…a beautiful location and until recently the vintner’s private residence. The wines were unremarkable but how could anything compare to Opus One.
The last and final day included Silver Oak Winery, which I thought was fun and generous. This winery served a ladder of five wines, plus a bonus wine (the picture at the top of this post). The wines were lovely, again some bottles were purchased and shipped back to San Diego.
The last stop and final wine tasting was Stags’ Leap. Quite a history, and an interesting story. Check their website for details. Also a very nice wine.
All of the wine tastings in Napa were that. The tastings varied from $60 US per person to $240 US per person depending on the wine and the winery. None of the wineries we visited offered a tour of their cellars, and all were sitting tastings. None offered restaurant food while a few offered small bites. It was an experience, but I think it’s more for peope serious about wine and probably looking to purchase wine directly from the winery. I wouldn’t call any of the tastings a ‘total experience’ as we had in France or the Niagara region or Temecula, although as a group of four, we certainly did have fun in the end. Would I go again? Tough one to call.