Saturday, December 23, 2006

Winetasting in the Carmel Valley

After 28 years in the Bay Area, it was time to visit Carmel Valley. I had visited the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur many times, but had never made the turn down Carmel Valley Road. A few of my guests had raved about this part of Northern California, so it was time to go.

There are many things to do in the Valley and some beautiful places to stay, but this post will focus on tasting wine. The experience here is quite different than in other parts of Wine Country. The vineyards and wineries located within the Carmel Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) are difficult to get to. As a result, wineries do not have tasting rooms on site. Rather, their tasting rooms are located apart from the vineyards and production facilities.

At least nine tasting rooms are along Carmel Valley Road. Some are freestanding, while others are in shopping centers. Going from store front to store front, for me, was not as enjoyable as driving among the vineyards to visit wineries in Napa and Sonoma. However, the experience is not all that different than going from tasting room to tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.

Once we entered the tasting rooms -- we visited four -- all of the staff were friendly and knowledgeable about their wines and wines in general. Wineries here tend to produce wines from the Carmel Valley AVA and other parts of Monterey County. Carmel Valley is a bit warmer than other parts of the County, so Bordeaux varietals are grown here. However, temperatures are not as hot as Napa and Sonoma and, thus, Carmel Valley wines are not quite as big. Santa Lucia Highlands AVA has cooler temperatures and many wineries produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this region.

I cannot recommend making a trip to the Monterey area solely to go winetasting. The sights on the Monterey Peninsula and along the coast are more compelling. However, if you are in the area and enjoy wine, spend an afternoon in the Carmel Valley tasting some of Monterey County's wines. You'll taste some good wine and learn about the special qualities of wine produced in this area.

For more information on Monterey County wines, visit If you would like to take a tour of Monterey, Carmel, and/or Carmel Valley, please feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Rising Tasting Fees

This past year has seen an increase in the fees charged for tasting wine. Last weekend, my guests paid the highest fee I have yet seen for a winetasting experience -- $50 per person. This was at Far Niente Winery, which produces high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and a dessert wine called Dulce. However, the visitor's experience at Far Niente includes far more than just a quick tasting of wine. A trip to Far Niente includes an extensive tour of the winery along with Gil Nickle's car collection and a sit-down tasting of current releases and library wines accompanied by cheeses. Despite the high cost, Far Niente remains one of the most popular wineries that are open only by appointment. In the summer, one needs to make a weekend appointment six to eight weeks in advance.

Many other wineries in the Napa Valley raised their fees this past year. Wineries that previously charged $5, now charge $10. Those that charged $10, now charge $20. A few have held the line. Frank Family and Rombauer still do not charge. Clos du Val still charges $5 for their current release tasting, but has started a reserve tasting on weekends that costs $20.

In the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, a year ago most wineries did not charge for tasting. Now most do. One tasting room manager told me that she instituted a tasting fee because too many bridal parties were coming just to taste. She was fine with the groups coming to have fun, but realized they were unlikely to buy any wine. So she decided to start charging a fee to recoup some of her costs.

When Robert Mondavi opened his winery in 1966, his goal was to produce quality wines. He was concerned, though, that people would not spend more for the quality wines because they were unfamiliar with them. So he included a tasting room where visitors could sample his wines and decide for themselves whether they were worth the extra money.

Tasting rooms continue to serve an educational purpose. Visitors can learn more about wine in general, the winery they are visiting, and their individual tastes in wine. However, with the increased charges, tasting rooms are becoming profit centers for the wineries. Visitors can now expect to pay between $10 and $20 to taste wine in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, with tastings of reserve wines costing more. In the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys, most wineries charge $5 or less to taste.

If you would like to take a custom Wine Country tour, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stunning Winery Overlooking the Napa Valley

Hall Wines has had a winery and tasting room in St. Helena since 2003. In 2005, they opened a small winery and tasting room near Rutherford that overlooks the Valley. This facility is designed to produce small lots of red wines and is used to make Hall's reserve wines, including the Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon

Touring and tasting at the Rutherford site is by appointment, so you will need to call before visiting. When you arrive at the winery, you will immediately notice the interesting art that surrounds the tasting room as well as the spectacular view from the veranda. Your visit will include a tour of the winery and the spectacular wine caves. These caves cover over 14,000 square feet and are finished with handmade Austrian bricks that were recovered from in and around Vienna.

If you are a Cabernet fan and/or enjoy interesting architecture, I highly recommend a visit to Hall Winery - Rutherford. Currently tours and tastings are offered at 10:00 a.m., noon, 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m. There is a $30 fee. Call (707) 967-0700 to make an appointment to visit this spectacular winery. Better yet, let Blue Heron Custom Tours make the arrangements for you. We can include a visit to Hall Winery - Rutherford on your private Napa tour. To book a tour, please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Holiday Season in Wine Country

If you are planning to visit Wine Country this month, I recommend you call ahead to the wineries you are planning to visit. Many have special events early in the month to celebrate the holidays. You can also visit two websites that have good listings of events occurring in wine country: and Both websites include events in Napa, Sonoma, and other parts of Wine Country throughout the state and country. When you visit, be sure to vote for "Rick's Wine Country Journal" as one of your favorite blogs.

Another reason to call in advance is to find out the wineries' holiday schedules. Most wineries close early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. A few close for one or both of these days. All wineries are closed on Christmas. Most, but not all, wineries are closed on New Year's Day.

December is a nice time in Wine Country. It's quieter than in the summer and fall, so tasting room staff have more time to spend with you. The hills start to turn green, so you will see the beauty of dormant vines surrounded by vibrant hills.

If you would like to take a private Wine Country tour, feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pinot Noir in the Dry Creek Valley

"The Dry Creek Valley is too hot to grow Pinot," you say. You are right. But you can buy grapes from other wine regions with the cooler climate that Pinot needs and still locate your winery in Dry Creek.

This is what Papapietro Perry Winery has done. Founded by longtime friends Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry, this small winery produces acclaimed Pinot Noir and a small amount of Zinfandel. "Wine Spectator" recently included a feature on California Pinot Noir that rated all of the Papapietro Perry Pinot Noirs they tasted 90 points or above.

When you visit Papietro Perry, you are likely to find Bruce Perry or his wife, Renae, pouring for you. Ben is there less frequently but during harvest look through the open garage door and you are likely to see him working with the grapes. You should be able to taste a few Pinots and one or two Zinfandels. However, production is small and the winery frequently sells out of its various releases.

The tasting room is located at 4791 Dry Creek Road in what might be called a winery park. Adjacent to the same parking lot are Amphora and Peterson wineries, as well as the tasting room for Family Wineries of the Dry Creek Valley. Papapietro Perry is open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. When you visit Dry Creek, take a break from the Valleys excellent Zinfandels and Cabernets to taste some excellent Pinot Noir. Better yet, let Blue Heron Custom Tours take you on a private wine country tour that includes a visit to the Dry Creek Valley and Papapietro Perry. You can schedule a tour by calling me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or sending me an e-mail message by clicking here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Artisan Cheese in Sonoma

Not only is the Bay Area home to terrific wine, but it is also the home of many artisan cheesemakers. One of the oldest is Vella Cheese Company, located at 315 2nd Street East, just 2 blocks from the Sonoma Plaza. Founded in 1931 by Tom Vella, today the company is run by his son, Ig (short for Ignazio).

Vella is best known for its dry Monterey Jack Cheese, but also makes a Mezzo Secco and Jacks with more moisture, both flavored and regular. I also enjoy Vella's Italian Table Cheese as well as its Asiago. There are other Italian-style cheeses available and two types of Cheddar.

When you visit Sonoma, take a walk over to Vella Cheese and taste some of their wonderful offerings. You can pick up some cheese for a picnic on the Sonoma Square. Vella is open from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. You may also purchase cheese on on-line or by calling (800) 848-0505.

If you want to take a Sonoma private tour that includes a stop on Sonoma Plaza so you may visit Vella, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nice, Small Cafe in Healdsburg

I recently ran into a concierge friend on the plaza in Healdsburg who had just lunched at the nearby Palette Art Cafe. My friend said she had had a nice meal at this small cafe, which I had never seen. So I decided to check out.

Turns out this pleasant cafe and gallery is in the back of the building at 235 Healdsburg Avenue, just south of the plaza. The La Crema tasting room is in the front of the building facing the street.

The menu contains a nice array of salads, sandwiches, small plates, and fondues. It's a perfect spot for a quality lunch, with no fuss. They also have some nice wines. So if you want a light dinner with a glass of wine, the Palette Art Cafe might be the spot for you.

The gallery displays the works of local artists. You can see works in both the cafe and in the gallery space on the other side of the courtyard. Works may also be viewed at the gallery's website:

The cafe is open weekdays from 9:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. On weekends, they open at 8:00 a.m. and close at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday and 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. If you are thinking of heading there on the late side, call first -- (707) 433-2788 -- to make sure they didn't close early.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes a stop at the Palette Art Cafe for lunch, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Picnicking Along the Russian River Wine Rd. - Part II

Now that you have your picnic supplies, it's time to find a nice spot to enjoy your lunch.

In the Alexander Valley, two wineries have nice picnic areas. Field Stone Winery, at the southern end of the Valley (10075 Hwy. 128), has picnic tables under the trees near the winery. This shaded area provides a perfect respite to lunch with one of Field Stone's wines. More information on Field Stone is available in my June 21, 2006 post.

In the northern half of the Alexander Valley sits Stryker Sonoma (5110 Hwy. 128). This winery is best known for small lots of Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel. The friendly tasting room staff will help you find the perfect wine to accompany your lunch. The picnic tables are just outside of the beautiful tasting room. Some tables are partially shaded, while others receive direct sunlight. So this may not be the best spot on the hottest of days. The rest of the year, you will enjoy your view of the nearby vineyards while eating your lunch and drinking a Stryker wine. Stryker is very close to the Jim Town Store (mentioned in my last post), where you can purchase your picnic supplies.

Two of my favorite picnic spots are both in the Dry Creek Valley - Lambert Bridge Winery and Passalacqua Winery. Both of these wineries have lovely picnic areas overlooking their gardens and the surrounding vineyards. Picnic tables are situated so you can sit in the sun or shade. I previously wrote about Passalacqua in my May 30, 2006. So you can check this post out for more details on this small winery.

Lambert Bridge is located at 4085 W. Dry Creek Road and sells its wine exclusively from the winery. If you want to taste Lambert Bridge's Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay, and other varietals, you will have to visit. If you visit on a weekend, I recommend tasting the reserve wines in the barrel room.

In the Russian River Valley, I recommend picnicking at either Arista Winery or Hop Kiln Winery. Arista has one of the most beautiful gardens in all of wine country. While tasting Arista's Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, you can sit in a formal Japanese garden and enjoy your lunch. The sound of the nearby waterfall only adds to the tranquility. Arista is located at 7015 Westside Road.

Hop Kiln Winery is, not surprisingly, located in an old hop kiln. Prior to Prohibition, hops were widely grown in both Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. At Hop Kiln you can have a lovely picnic beside the duck pond or in the old fig garden. Hop Kiln is located at 6050 Westside Road.

If you would like to take a private, custom wine country tour that includes a picnic at one of these lovely wineries, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Picnicking Along the Russian River Wine Rd. - Part I

Like my recent posts on the Napa Valley, I'll divide my recommendations for the Healdsburg area into two parts. This posting will feature places to pick up picnic supplies.

The town of Healdsburg is where the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys meet. On the southeast corner of the plaza (Matheson and Center Streets) is a branch of the Oakville Grocery, which I wrote about in the first part of my Napa picnicking post. Like the original in Oakville, this outlet is an excellent place to buy cheeses, deli meats, sandwiches, and salads.

In the Alexander Valley, the Jimtown Store, has wonderful sandwiches that you can either eat at picnic tables in the back of the store or take with you to one of the wineries. The store is located on Route 128, just west of the intersection with Pine Flat Road.

Not as upscale at the Jimtown Store is the Dry Creek General Store at the intersection of Dry Creek and Lambert Bridge Roads. Here you can pick up good sandwiches to eat at the picnic tables out front or take with you to your next winery stop.

Unfortunately, the Russian River Valley does not have a place in the heart of the wine region to pick up supplies. If you are heading that way, you may want to stop at the Whole Foods Market at 6910 McKinley Street in Sebastopol to get your food before you head further north.

In the next post I will recommend some wineries with beautiful picnic areas. Meanwhile, if you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes a picnic in the Healdsburg area, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Picnicking in the Napa Valley - Part II

Many of the picnic areas in the Napa Valley are located at wineries on the Silverado Trail. However, one nice spot on Route 29 is Hall Winery in St. Helena. The winery is located next door to Dean and Deluca so it easy to get your supplies and then head to the winery for lunch. The historic tasting room was built in 1885. Outside is a small, picnic area under the trees.

If you are in the southern end of the Napa Valley, there are a few good spots for picnics. Clos du Val and Regusci in the Stags Leap District both have tables that are shaded by surrounding trees. Both wineries have excellent red wines. Clos du Val is best known for Cabernet, but also has Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Regusci is a small, family winery. Their production is limited, so at times they are sold out of some of their wines. However, their Cabernet and Merlot are usually available for tasting. Regusci's wines are big. If you like this style, don't miss this winery.

A little further north, where Yountville Cross meets the Silverado Trail, is Robert Sinskey Winery. Best known for Pinot Noir, this winery has an ever-changing list of wines available for tasting. The picnic area is on a terrace overlooking the valley. It's more exposed than the areas mentioned above, but has a nicer view.

Rutherford Hill Winery has a large picnic grounds on a hillside east of the town of Rutherford. The views are obstructed by the trees, but this picnic area is among the largest in Napa. If you like Merlot, Rutherford Hill should not be missed. To get to the winery take Rutherford Hill Road to the end.

When you picnic at a winery, please do not consume wines from other wineries. Not only would this violate the wineries' permits, but it is not considered good form. If you want wine with lunch, buy it from the winery. Usually they will open the bottle for you and loan you some wine glasses.

If you want to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes a picnic at one of these wineries, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here. I will customize the tour so you visit the wineries that best match your tastes and interest.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tasting Room Faux Pas

Today's "Santa Rosa Press Democrat" has an excellent article on dos and don'ts in tasting rooms. You may access it by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Picnicking in the Napa Valley - Part I

I've written about some dining options in Napa (see my March 27, 2006 post on Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen and May 9, 2006 post on Auberge du Soleil), but sometimes folks prefer a casual picnic at a winery. The first step in having a great picnic is getting quality food. There are three places I recommend in the Napa Valley.

First is the Oakville Grocery in the small town of Oakville. Located at the intersection of Hwy. 29 and Oakville Cross, this store doesn't look like much from the outside. Walk inside and you'll find a wide selection of prepared foods as well as a counter where you can order sandwiches and salads. This place tends to get mobbed at lunch time, so try to pick up your supplies early. There are a few picnic tables at the Grocery, so you enjoy your lunch under one of their redwoods if you prefer.

In the northern part of the Valley, the town of St. Helena has two places to pick up food and supplies. Dean and Deluca is located just south of the heart of St. Helena on Hwy. 29. This branch of a national chain has great cheese and deli counters as well as a counter that has prepared salads and makes sandwiches and salads on the spot. Less known in St. Helena is Sunshine Foods, which is at 1115 Main Street in the heart of St. Helena. This local grocery store has a counter that makes excellent sandwiches and salads and sells delicious prepared salads. Sunshine also has a wide selection of artisan cheeses. While Dean and Deluca has a bigger selection, Sunshine Market is far less crowded.

The next step on having a good picnic is finding the right picnic spot. I'll recommend some spots in my next post. Meanwhile if you would like to take a private, custom tour of the Napa Valley that includes a picnic lunch, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here. I always carry a cooler and picnic supplies, so you will have everything you need for a great lunch in Napa.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Getting Your Wine Home - Part 2

This past week, I took two groups to the Napa Valley who faced the challenge of getting their wine home. The first family was from Pennsylvania, a state to which very few wineries can ship. Since the family was not going directly home from San Francisco, taking their wine with them was not a good option. So we went to a shipping company that can ship wine to all states except Utah and New Hampshire. Given the warm weather back east, sending the wine by ground was not a good option. Air shipping was highly recommended. The prices ranged from $80/case for three-day delivery to $100/case for overnight delivery. In addition, my guests paid for a shipping container ($12) and insurance. All-in-all, an expensive proposition. (Had the temperatures been cooler, ground shipping was $40/case.)

Another group was from Texas, a state that most wineries can ship to. Temperatures were over 100 degrees back home, so the couple asked the winery to not ship their wine until the weather improved. This was no problem for the winery and arranging to get a half-case of wine back home was easy. The couple then proceeded to buy a couple more bottles at another winery. Shipping two bottles is not cost effective. We stopped by a shipping company and picked up a two-bottle shipping container. The wine could then be checked as baggage.

Fortunately, there are more states that wineries can ship to than they cannot. Shipping directly from the winery is usually cheaper, and certainly easier, than using a shipping company.

When you take a wine country tour with Blue Heron Custom Tours, I will gladly walk you through your options for getting your wine home. To book a private, custom tour in wine country, call (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Getting Your Wine Home - Part 1

With the new ban on liquids in carry-on items on airplanes, getting your wine home from the wineries is a bit more of a challenge. Previously it was easy to carry your wine purchases onto the airplane in a handy six-bottle carrier. Now this practice is forbidden.

If you live in one of the many states that permits you to ship your wine home from the winery, this remains an easy option. Shipping a case (12 bottles) home usually costs between $25 and $50. A note of caution: if you live in a state where summer temperatures get toasty, make sure your wine is shipped by overnight or two-day express or ask the winery to delay shipping the wine until later in the year when temperatures drop. Wine and excessive heat are a very bad combination.

If you live in a state where shipping wine home is prohibited or you want to bring the wine with you, you can check your wine as baggage in a styrofoam shipping container. These containers come in 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, and 15 bottle configurations at prices ranging from $2 - $20. Many wineries, such as Clos du Val and Nicholson Ranch, are stocking shipping containers and selling them at near cost.

Shipping services also sell containers. Fitch Mountain Packaging at 424 Center Street, Suite A, Healdsburg, is a quality service if you are visiting the Russian River, Dry Creek, and/or Alexander Valley. Call (707) 433-1247 to check their hours before you stop by. In the Napa Valley, Buffalo's Shipping Post at 2471 Solano Avenue in the city of Napa has a good supply of containers. Again, call them at (707) 226-7942. If you buy only a few bottles from each of the wineries you visit and want to combine them into one shipment home, both Fitch Mountain and Buffalo's provide shipping services. Both can ship to states that may be off limits to the wineries.

If you decide to check your container as baggage, fill the container as you travel from winery to winery and, at the end of the day, take it back to your hotel. Then write your name,address, and phone number on the outside and have the hotel or airline seal it for you. The styrofoam protects the wine while in the plane's baggage hold. Keep the container when you get home as the styrofoam insulates the wine from heat and cold. Just make sure you place the bottles on their sides or turn them upside down so the corks stay moist.

While it may be a little more difficult to get wine home, it can still be done with a fair amount of ease. So don't be discouraged from purchasing some of the tasty wines you enjoy while visiting wine country. If you would like to take a private, tour in Napa and/or Sonoma County, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Winetasting in the Anderson Valley

The most recent edition of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free, quarterly newsletter of fun things to do in the Bay Area, includes an article on the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. To view this edition of "Rick's Tips" click here.

If you would like to visit the Anderson Valley, perhaps combining it with a visit to the beautiful Mendocino coast, I'd be happy to help you plan your vacation. Feel free to call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Winetasting Overlooking The Vineyards

Bouchaine Vineyards in the Carneros Region of Napa County provides a lovely spot to taste some quality wine. On a sunny day, sitting on Bouchaine's deck overlooking the vineyards and tasting excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other varietals provides the perfect wine country experience. If the weather isn't cooperating, the friendly staff will make sure you still have an enjoyable time at the counter in the tasting room.

If you plan ahead, Bouchaine can provide you with a picnic lunch on the deck. Their "Table for Two" provides a picnic basked with lunch for two adults and a bottle of wine. You may order as many baskets as you need for your group, but must call (800) 654-9463) at least 24 hours in advance to arrange your wine country lunch.

Bouchaine is located a little off the beaten track in Carneros at 1075 Buchli Station Road. Be sure to take a map with you (available on Bouchaine's website) as Buchli Station Road is not well marked and Bouchaine's sign at the intersection of Las Amigas and Buchli Station is easy to miss. Bouchaine is open daily from 10:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. During the winter, their hours are reduced so check before you visit if traveling between November and April.

Better yet, let Blue Heron Custom Tours take you a private tour of Carneros that includes a visit to Bouchaine and other great wineries. To book your custom tour, call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Corks or Screwcaps

One of the regular debates in today's world of wine is the type of closure used for a wine bottle. Air and oxygen are wine's enemy until the time comes to open the bottle.

For centuries closures made from the bark of cork oak trees have been used to seal bottles of wine. These corks do a pretty good job of keeping the air out. Unfortunately, they can carry a chemical called TCA for short (trichloroanisole) which can impart an rather unpleasant odor to the wine that masks the flavor. This is commonly called cork taint. Estimates are that between 3 and 10% of all bottles of wine are corked.

In small doses, only the most discerning noses will identify the TCA. However, when present in larger amounts the wine will have an odor of wet cardboard or wet dog. Neither is a characteristic most drinkers look for in their wine.

Synthetic corks have been used for many years, but many find them problematic. They may not fit tightly enough against the glass to prevent small amounts of oxygen from entering the bottles. Some find them hard to remove. However, they are cheaper than natural corks. For inexpensive wines that are not meant to be aged, there should not be problems when synthetic corks are used.

More recently, screwcaps have been used to seal wines at all prices. Nearly all Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand and Gruner Veltliners from Austria are sealed with screwcaps. They do a great job of keeping the oxygen out of the bottle -- better than corks -- and carry no risk of transmitting TCA. However, they do carry the stigma of being associated with cheap, jug wines. Some critics feel they impart an unpleasant sulfur odor to some wines. Others contend they seal out the oxygen so completely that aging is inhibited.

If you want to test out the aging theory, Plumpjack Winery sells its excellent Cabernet Sauvignon in a two-pack. One bottle is sealed with cork and the other with a screwcap. You can then cellar both bottles and come back a few years later to see if there is any difference.

One final note on corks. When you are at a restaurant and the waiter lays down the cork, you may wonder what to do with it. You may smell it to see if your wine is corked, but this is no guarantee. There may be TCA in the cork, but not in the wine. So when the waiter has you taste the wine check for the taint of TCA. If you think the wine is corked, politely ask the waiter for his opinion. Restaurants get refunds from their distributors on corked bottles, so there should be no problem in sending back a bad bottle. Just remember that a bottle of wine that is not to your taste is not a bad bottle of wine. We all have different palates.

If you want to take a private, wine country tour that includes visits to Plumpjack and other fine wineries that use screwcaps, make a reservation by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Small Winery in the Napa Valley

While many visitors to the Napa Valley head to the big, well-known wineries, there are many hidden gems. One of them is Bell Wine Cellars. This small winery is located just south of the center of Yountville on Washington Street.

Anthony Bell established the winery in 1991 after leaving Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) where he worked with the great Andre Tchelistcheff in making the famed George La Tour series of wines. Today Anthony makes great Cabernet Sauvignons and other wines using the experience he gained doing clonal research at BV.

In addition to a number of great Cabs, Anthony makes Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Port, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. This is a lot of variety for a winery that makes less than 10,000 cases each year, with half devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bell's tasting room is located amongst the fermentation tanks. Upon arrival, you will be greeted warmly by Don or Kelly. Both are friendly, outgoing, and knowledgeable about wine. You will be sure to have a great time while you taste your way through Bell's list of impressive wines.

Bell is open for tasting only by appointment. You can arrange a tasting by calling (707) 944-1673. Better yet, take a private tour of the Napa Valley with Blue Heron Custom Tours and we will arrange for you to taste at Bell and other boutique wineries. To book a tour, call (866) 326-42237 (toll free) or e-mail us by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Old Vine Petite Sirah in the Alexander Valley

Field Stone Winery is one of my favorite wineries in the Alexander Valley. This small winery produces around 8,000 cases of wine per year and has a wide selection of varietals available. There is sure to be at least one wine to suit your taste.

My favorite white wine is Field stone's Viognier. The winery produces a very small quantity of this Rhone varietal and reserves most of each year's production for the winery's wine club. As a result, the wine is not often available for tasting. If it is, try it. If you are a Viognier fan and it is not being offered for tasting, ask if they have some for sale. You might be able to sneak a taste if they have an open bottle.

The Field Stone wine that really grabs me is their Petite Sirah. Produced from vines that are 109 years old, this luscious wine may be too big for those who like lighter reds. But it is a favorite of mine as well as of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair's judges, where it frequently wins a medal. If you want to see the gnarled vines that produce this luscious wine, ask in the tasting room if it is ok to walk behind the winery to visit the vineyard.

Not only is there a lot of good wine at Field Stone, but the tasting room staff is among the most hospitable and friendly in Northern California Wine Country. Nancy, Kevin, and the rest of the staff will welcome you to the winery. Field Stone is located at 10075 Hwy. 28, southeast of Healdsburg.

If you would like to take a private Wine Country tour that includes a visit to Field Stone, call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Fresh Seafood in Healdsburg

One of my favorite lunch spots in Healdsburg is Willi's Seafood and Raw Bar. This lively spot features small plates of fresh seafood, which are great for sharing. Their lobster and crab rolls are among the best in the Bay Area. They have tasty ceviches, skewers of grilled seafood, salads, fried oysters, and many other wonderful dishes. Accompany your meal with a local Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc and you will have a tasty lunch. You can dine either inside or on the patio in front of the restaurant.

Willi's is also open for dinner, so stop by in the evening if you are overnighting in Healdsburg.

Willi's is located at 403 Healdsburg Avenue, one block north of the Healdsburg Plaza. The phone number is (707) 433-9191.

If you would like to take a private, custom tour that includes a visit to Healdsburg and lunch at Willi's, make a reservation by calling (866) 326-4237 or e-mailing by clicking here.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fun Winery Tour in the Sonoma Valley

Benziger Family Winery offers one of the most fun winery tours in all of Wine Country. Several times each day, Benziger offers a tractor-pulled tram wine through the vineyards. Here you will have a chance to look at the vines close up. And Benziger's vines are special as the vineyard is Biodynamic certified.

Biodynamics is a holistic approach to farming. Going beyond the requirements of an organic certification, biodynamics requires that the farm be self-sustaining and in harmony with nature.

The tour costs $10/person and advance reservations are highly recommended. Call (888) 490-2739 to book your space on one of these fun tractor tours. The winery is located at 1883 London Ranch Road.

Nearby is Jack London State Park where you can visit Jack London's famed Beauty Ranch. The nearby town of Glen Ellen is home to some good restaurants as well as The Olive Press, where you can taste artisan olive oils.

If you would like to take a private, custom tours of the Sonoma Valley that includes a tour at Benziger and a stroll through Glen Ellen, call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Picnicking in the Dry Creek Valley

My favorite spot for picnicking in wine country is the terrace at Passalacqua Winery in the Dry Creek Valley. This small, family owned winery produces about 4,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The terrace overlooks Passalacqua's neighbor's vineyards as well as the hills above the valley. Life doesn't get much better than enjoying a nice lunch with a good bottle of Passalacqua wine while gazing out over the lush vines on a warm, sunny day.

Before you start your lunch, be sure to taste Passalacqua's wines so you can purchase a glass or bottle to accompany your meal. The friendly staff will guide you through the full range of available wines.

Passalacqua is located at 3805 Lambert Bridge Road. The tasting room is open daily from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. You can pick up picnic supplies at the Oakville Grocery in nearby Healdsburg or at the Dry Creek Store, at the corner of Lambert Bridge and Dry Creek Roads, a half mile from the winery. As at all winery picnic areas, you may only consume wine purchased at the winery.

If you would like to take a custom wine tour that includes a visit to Passalacqua, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wine Shipping Update

Much has changed in the past year since the Supreme Court overturned New York's and Michigan's laws prohibiting out-of-state wineries to ship wine directly to consumers. Many states including New York, Ohio, Florida, and Massachusetts have liberalized their laws. Thus, more visitors to wine country will be able to have the wineries ship their purchases directly to their home or office.

But not all visitors can ship their wine home. Some states, e.g. Utah and Maryland, still prohibit direct to consumer shipments. Others allow such shipments, but require wineries to register with the State and collect taxes. For some small wineries these extra requirements are too burdensome.

A good, but not perfect, resource for learing if wineries can ship to you is the
Wine Institute. Its website contains maps for direct shipping for buyers who are making their purchases while visiting the winery or from their home. If you want to be certain that a winery can ship to you, contact the winery.

Keep in mind that wines that are distributed usually cost less when purchased at your local wine shop. This is because wineries will not undercut their distributors.

When you have wine shipped, you will have to pay a shipping fee but may not have to pay sales tax. Most wineries usually offer a discount on case (12 bottles) purchases. Some offer discounts when purchasing six bottles.

You can also arrange to have your wine shipped to most States (including some that the wineries can not ship to) through independent shipping companies in San Francisco, Napa, and Healdsburg. I can recommend shippers to you if the need arises while you are touring with me.

Lastly, a person over the age of 21 must be physically present to sign for your wine shipment when it arrives. Thus, you sometimes get acheaper rate if you ship your wine to your office.

If you want to take a private, custom tour of Napa and/or Sonoma Wine Country and buy some wine to ship home, please contact me by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by e-mailing me by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Best Place for Lunch in the Napa Valley

Our rainy season has finally ended. The sun is shining and the days are warming up. Now is the perfect time to dine al fresco when visiting the Napa Valley. The best place to lunch outside is Auberge du Soleil. This restaurant and inn is located on a hill near Rutherford. When you make a reservation -- a must in the Spring, Summer, and Fall -- ask for outside dining. You will sit on the terrace overlooking the Valley. Not only will you have a spectacular view of the Valley, you will also dine in one of the finest restaurants around.

This is not a place to rush through lunch. You'll want to relax and slowly make your way through the courses. The food is California cuisine at its best. The wine list is the size of a telephone book. I have eaten at Auberge about a half-dozen times and each meal has been superb.

Life doesn't get much better than sitting outside on a warm, sunny day; gazing over the Napa Valley vineyards; and enjoying fine food and wine.

If you cannot get a reservation or decide to visit Auberge on the spur of the moment, you can always lunch at the more casual bar, which has a few outdoor tables.

Call (800) 348-5406 to make a reservation at the restaurant or inn. If you want to include lunch at Auberge du Soleil on a tour of the Napa Valley, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Garagista in Dry Creek Valley

The term garagista derives from a French term that is used to describe small producers of wine. I use it with affection to describe a few small wineries, one of which is Deux Amis Winery. Located in the Dry Creek Valley, Deux Amis specializes in Zinfandel and also produces some Petite Sirah. Deux Amis (two friends in French) is a partnership of Phyllis Zouzounis and Jim Penpraze. Founded in 1987, today the winery produces around 1,500 cases of wine.

I enjoy their wines so much that I am a member of their wine club. Thus, I can look forward to semiannual shipments of their delicious and well priced wines. If you would like to taste Deus Amis' wine, they are usually open to the public on Saturday afternoons or you can call for an appointment. There's nothing fancy about their tasting room, just a table amongst the barrels of aging wine in an unadorned warehouse. No spit buckets here, just dump any unwanted wine in the drain on the floor.

Deux Amis is located at 1960 Dry Creek Road, in the front of the building that houses Wilson Winery's tasting room. You can call (707) 431-7945 if you want to schedule an appointment to taste their wines. Better yet, let Blue Heron take you on a tour of the Dry Creek Valley. You can schedule a tour by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing me by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Relax and Enjoy California Sparkling Wine

One of my favorite settings in all of wine country is the patio at Domaine Carneros. Life doesn't get much better than sitting outside on a sunny afternoon, gazing out over the vineyards, and drinking sparkling wine.

Domaine Carneros is best known for it's three sparkling wines. (While it is legal to call sparkling wine "Champagne" in the United States, to the rest of the world "Champagne" is sparkling wine produced only in the Champagne region of France.) However, it also produces some pretty good Pinot Noir.

When you visit the winery, I recommend ordering a sampler of the three sparkling wines or three red wines (usually three different Pinot Noirs or two Pinots and a Merlot). Domaine Carneros is one of the few wineries that serves food, so you may want to pair your wine with a cheese or caviar plate.

Domaine Carneros is open later than most wineries -- until 6:00 p.m. -- so it's a perfect spot to end your day of winetasting. The winery also offers a 45-minute tour to explain how sparkling wine is produced. Domaine Carneros is located on Highway 121 in the Carneros Region of Napa County.

If you would like to take a tour that includes a stop at Domaine Carneros, feel free to call me to book our 4.5-hour Taste of Wine Country Tour or our 8-hour tour to the Napa or Sonoma Valley. You can reach me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Learn Something While Tasting Good Wine

One of my frequent stops for tasting in the Napa Valley is Clos du Val. The winery was established in 1972 and its Cabernet from grapes harvested that year competed in the famed 1976 Paris Tasting. While not winning in 1976, Clos du Val's 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon won in the 1986 rematch; which was held to judge how well the original entries had aged over the preceding decade.

When you visit Clos du Val today, you not only get to taste delicious wine, but the staff there is among the most knowledgeable in the Valley. You will usually get to see the impact of decanting on a young Cabernet whose tannins need some softening. Feel free to ask the staff as many questions as you like. They love talking about wine and Clos du Val.

Tours of the winery are available by appointment. You may make a reservation for a tour by calling (800) 820-1972. The winery is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and is located at 5330 Silverado Trail.

You can arrange a Napa Tour, which includes a stop at Clos du Val, by calling me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing me by clicking here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Casual Dining in St. Helena

The restaurant I most frequently recommend to my guests for a nice, casual lunch in the Napa Valley is Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena. Cindy's is perfect for visitors who want a good meal, but one that will not take two hours and set them back a chunk of change.

Lunch entrees include a burger to die for, a Chinatown duck burger, tasty Cobb and chicken curry salads, and more substantial fare that usually includes fresh fish and a "Big Beefy Cab Dish." The restaurant has a fine selection of local wines, plus many non-alcoholic beverages for those who want a break from winetasting. The No Heat-O and fresh squeezed limeade and lemonade are favorites.

Cindy Pawlcyn, co-owner of the restaurant, has been cooking in the Napa Valley for over 20 years. She opened Mustard's Grill, one of the first quality restaurants in the Valley, in 1983.

Cindy's is located at 1327 Railroad Avenue (one block east of Main Street; thus, "Backstreet Kitchen," in St. Helena. I recommend calling ahead for a reservation at (707) 963-1200.

Want a Napa Valley tour that includes a stop for lunch at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen? Then call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Friendly Tasting Room in Carneros

Carneros is the wine growing region (American Viticulture Area (AVA)) that spans the top of San Francisco Bay. The nearby Bay provides for cooler temperatures; thus, making Carneros (sheep or ram in Spanish) an ideal locale to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Growers have also been experimenting with other varietals, such as Syrah.

Carneros' beautiful rolling hills and proximity to San Francisco (approximately one hour by car) make this a great place to taste wine. One of the friendliest tasting rooms to visit is
Nicholson Ranch, a small, family-owned winery that produces about 6,500 cases of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a very small amount of Merlot. The land is owned by Socrates Nicholson. (Ellis Island officials Anglicized the family's Greek surname.) Soc's daughter, Ramona, owns the winery. Both are frequently in the tasting room and available to answer your questions.

More likely you'll encounter the regular tasting room staff, which includes Bruce, Bill, Charles, Donna, Mark, and Susan. All are enthusiastic about Nicholson's wines; extremely knowledgeable about wine in general; and, most importantly, welcoming to all visitors.

Nicholson charges $10 for a flight of six wines, which you may keep to yourself or share with your companion. It's fun to compare and contract Nicholson's various Chardonnays, Pinots, and Syrahs. The staff will help you select wines that will appeal to your palate. Nicholson is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Tours of their caves may be arranged by prior appointment.

If you want to take a private, custom wine country tour that includes a visit to Nicholson Ranch, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking

Friday, March 10, 2006

Rubicon Estate

Yesterday I took my first guests to the new Rubicon Estate (formerly known as Niebaum-Coppola Winery). Prior to the changeover on February 1, anyone could stop into the winery; wander around the historic estate, Chateau, and museum; have a beverage at the cafe; and/or taste wine. There was a fee for tasting wine, but access to the estate, Chateau and museum was free. As a result, this was one of the most crowded wineries in the Napa Valley.

Yesterday, the facility was nearly empty. There is a $25/person fee to enter the grounds. This fee grants you access to the Chateau and museum and a tasting of five Estate wines, including their signature wine -- Rubicon. My guests enjoyed the wines, but the experience was too regimented for my taste.

Upon entry to the grounds, a staff member briefly describes the new rules and gives you an audio guide that explains them in more detail as you drive down the entry way. A second staff member takes back the audio guide. You then go to the valet stand, where you hand over your keys and receive your passport. Upon entry to the Chateau, your passport must be stamped at the concierge desk. After your tasting and visit, you return to a different valet stand, pay your $25/person fee, and get your car back. (Designated drivers are not charged.)

While the wine may be top notch, the team at the winery forgot one rule -- Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). Winetasting is a leisurely experience. While the absence of crowds is a real plus, the experience comes across too much like an army drill.

Rubicon Estate is located Rutherford. The Chateau is open daily from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday between Memorial Day and Labor Day.)

If you want to take a private, custom tour of the Napa Valley, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lunch in the Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley is home to wineries producing some of California's best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I always recommend visiting this part of wine country to my guests who love Pinot. However, lunch options are limited.

Last week, I was invited to lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the east side of the Valley: John Ash & Co. Located in the Vintners Inn, John Ash features the best of California Cuisine. This restaurant was one of the first in northern Sonoma County to feature fine dining utilizing the freshest of ingredients. My group was treated to wonderful crab cakes and pork loin. Dessert options included the biggest piece of chocolate cake I have seen in many years and a tangy meyer lemon cheesecake. Vintners Inn is owned by the Carano family, who also own Ferrari-Carano Vineyards. So lunch was accompanied by three of their fine wines including their well-known Fume Blanc and a Black Muscat dessert wine that was too sweet for my taste, but loved by everyone else in my group. We enjoyed all of this great wine and food while gazing out at beautiful vineyards.

John Ash & Co. is located at 4350 Barnes Road, near the River Road exit off US 101. Reservations may be made by calling (707) 527-7687.

If you want to taste some great Pinot Noir and have lunch at John Ash, take one of my Hidden Vineyards Tours. Reservations may be made by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing me by clicking here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

J Vineyards and Winery

Two weeks ago I had the special opportunity to lunch in the Bubble Room at J Vineyards and Winery. J is located in a beautiful facility at 11447 Old Redwood Highway, just south of Healdsburg. The winery was founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan, the daughter of Tom Jordan of Jordan Vineyard and Winery fame. Originally focusing on one wine - J Vintage Brut - today the winery produces sparkling wines, pinot noir, chardonnay, a delicious Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italian) that I was privileged to taste, and other wines.

J offers food and wine pairings in its main tasting room for $12/person. If you want a more intimate and leisurely tasting experience, then make a reservation for a tasting in the Bubble Room. Here you may spend up to two hours tasting limited release wines. Chef Mark Caldwell prepares interesting and well thought out food pairings for each of the wines. Tasting in the Bubble Room costs approximately $30/person. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling 707-431-5430.

The wines and food change regularly, but you can be assured that whatever you taste at J will be wonderful.

If you would like to take a private, custom tour of the Russian River Valley that includes a visit to J, please call me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me by clicking here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wonderful Food at the Madrona Manor

On Tuesday, I was treated to a delicious meal at the Madrona Manor, a stunning Victorian mansion outside of Healdsburg. The mansion was built in 1881 and today contains an inn and restaurant. Nine rooms, as well as the restaurant, are located in the main building and more rooms are located in out buildings.

We were expecting a five course meal with a different wine paired with each course, but chef Jesse Mallgren through in an extra appetizer, a sorbet to cleanse our palates, an extra desert, and a truffle to make sure we went to sleep with an appropriate sugar buzz. I particularly enjoyed the Alaskan Char,the Painted Hills beef filet, and the chocolate souffle. I am not a beef eater, but the filet was one of the tastiest and tenderest pieces of beef I have ever enjoyed.

The Madrona Manor is the perfect spot for a romantic weekend. The inn is located at 1001 Westside Road, just west of the charming town of Healdsburg. You can phone the inn at (800) 258-4003.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Beautiful Day In Wine Country

Yesterday I took a family to the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys for a day of winetasting. What a gorgeous day it was. I've always said the most beautiful days are between winter storms, and yesterday proved that to be true. After our abundant rain, the hillsides are a lush green and the yellow mustard is blossoming in the vineyards. With the nearly cloudless blue sky and temperature in the 60s, it was a perfect day to visit wine country.

My guests visited seven wineries, tying the Blue Heron the record for most wineries visited in an eight-hour tour. Yet the day was not rushed. Being a Saturday, we visited one of my favorite small wineries. Deux Amis (two friends) is the perfect example of a great boutique winery. Winemaker Phyllis Zouzounis and co-owner Jim Penpraze produce about 1,500 cases of luscious, full-bodied Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The winery and tasting room fit into a small warehouse at 1960 Dry Creek Road, outside of Healdsburg. When you stop by, not only will you get to taste great wine, but you'll always get to meet at least one of the owners. Yesterday, my guests met both Phyllis and Jim, tasted four great wines for free, and learned about winemaking as Phyllis topped off the barrels. Deux Amis is usually open on Saturday afternoons. If you want to visit at another time, call (707) 431-7945 to make an appointment.

If you would like to take a custom, private tour to visit Deux Amis and other wonderful boutique wineries, call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Two New Russian River Valley Tasting Rooms

I just returned from two days of drinking good wine and eating delicious food in the Russian River Valley. During my journeys I was introduced to two beautiful new tasting rooms.

Arista Winery was founded in 2002 and focuses on Pinot Noir. They also produce Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtzraminer, and Zinfandel. The tasting room is in a beautiful Japanese-influenced building that is surrounded by formal gardens atop a hill, making this a perfect stop for a picnic. Arista is located at 7015 Westside Road, near Healdsburg. The tasting room is open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Tuesday and Wednesday by appointment.

Lynmar Winery is older than Arista, having been founded in 1990, but its stunning hospitality center is brand new. Lynmar produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Your tasting experience includes wine and food pairings. On a nice day, you can enjoy your wine on the hospitality center patio and gaze out at the Quail Hill vineyard. The winery also has facilities for group meetings and luncheons. Lynmar is located at 3909 Frei Road, near Sebastopol. The hospitality center is open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The Russian River Valley is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you want to take a private tour of this beautiful part of wine country that includes visits to Arista and Lynmar Wineries, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Delicious Wines - No Tasting Fees

Most wineries in the Napa Valley charge a tasting fee ranging from $5 to $15/person for their regular wines and up to $40/person for reserve wines. Fees were not always the norm. In the 1960s and 1970s winetasting in Napa was usually free. But too many people were stopping at the wineries for a free drink; with no interest in learning about wine and no intention of buying any. So most wineries started charging fees to taste.

One of my favorite wineries in the Valley,
Frank Family Vineyards, has great wine, hospitable staff, and free tasting. Frank Family remains the only winery that I frequently visit on tour where my guests have always purchased wine. Why? Because the wine is delicious. If you like big wines, Frank Family is for you. They produce a Chardonnay, which they call a white wine for red wine lovers; a regular, reserve, and premium Cabernet; a very big Zinfandel; Sangiovese; four sparkling wines; and a Zinfandel Port. All wines are not always available. Being a small winery, they frequently sell out of their releases. If you would like to taste a wine that is not being poured, ask if the wine is available. The staff will accommodate you if they can.

The tasting room is very casual. Dennis, Tim, Pat, Jerry, and Jeff preside over the room and will make sure you feel at home. In fact, the tasting room looks like it is in a 1950s ranch home. The front room is where you will taste the sparkling wines, which Frank Family calls Champagne. When you are finished up front, you will be ushered into the rear room to taste the still wines. At the end of your visit, you will have tasted at least six wines, gotten a good wine education, and probably laughed a bit. If Jeff is pouring ask him why he calls the Zinfandel, "LPR."

Frank Family is in the historic Larkmead Winery and the former home of Hans Kornell Champagne. The tasting room's address is 1091 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga and is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

If you would like to include Frank Family on a private, custom tour of the Napa Valley, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Buying Wine at the Wineries

When taking guests on tour, I get many questions about purchasing wine while visiting the wineries. The first thing to remember when visiting a tasting room is that, while the wineries want to sell you wine, you are under no obligation to do so. Life is too short to buy wine you will not enjoy.

Prices at wineries are usually not below the prices you might find at a local discount wine shop or liquor store. Wineries will not undercut their distributors on price, so they generally sell at the full retail rate. However, there are some big exceptions:
  • A discount is usually offered if you buy a case (12 bottles). This need not be a case of just one wine. Mixing is permitted.
  • Joining the wine club provides discounts. Becoming a member of a winery's club lets you get a shipment of wine at regular intervals (two to six times per year). Prices are discounted on the regular shipment, plus additional savings are offered on other wines. A wine club is great when you like a winemaker's style and are willing to try whatever the winery sends you. There is no fee to join a wine club and most wineries let you cancel at any time. However, you must live in a state to which the winery may ship. (More on this another time.)
  • There are end of release sales. Sometimes the winery can no longer store old vintages and needs to sell them quickly to make room for new releases. I have bought some tasty wines and saved 40-50% of the regular price at these sales.
  • Many wines are only available at the winery. This is the most important factor to consider when purchasing wines at the winery (assuming you like the wine). Some wineries produce wines that you can easily find when you return home and others that are only available from the tasting room. If you enjoy one of these winery exclusives during your stop at the tasting room, you should buy it while there. Winery exclusive wines are usually produced in small amounts so may not be available if you try to order it directly from the winery at a later date. Plus some states only permit the wineries to ship wine to you when you are physically at the winery.
  • Many wineries do not distribute their wines. I love visiting small wineries. My guests get to taste wonderful wine and have great times talking with the tasting room staff. At times they get to meet the winemaker. Many of these wineries sell all or nearly all of their wine from the tasting room. Even when a winery has limited distribution the odds of 1 of their 3,000 cases ending up in your local wine shop is very remote.

  • I hope this information will help you better enjoy your next visit to wine country. If you want to take a private tour in Napa and Sonoma Counties to some of the small wineries, please call me at (866) 326-4237 or e-mail me by clicking here. I will try to pick wineries for you to visit that produce wines that you are likely to enjoy.