Monday, January 18, 2010

Gold Medals and 95 Points

Guests on my tours frequently ask me, "What's the best winery?" Sometimes, they'll ask, "What's the best wine?"  The answers are that there is no best winery or best wine.  Everyone has different interests and tastes in wine.  I've tasted some extremely well rated -- and very expensive -- Cabernet Sauvignons and not enjoyed them.  I am just not a Cab guy.  There are many good wines that I do enjoy, and life is too short to drink wine one doesn't like.

So what's this mean for the wine magazine ratings and all of the gold medals you see boasted about in the tasting rooms.  These ratings and medals can serve as a guide, but the bottom line is that the only palate that matters is yours.  Plus some ratings and medals are more significant than others.  One winemaker allegedly said that if a winemaker can't win a gold medal, he/she shouldn't be in the business.  After all, a gold medal from the Podunk Mall Wine Expo doesn't carry much weight in the wine world.  Some of the medals that are more prestigious are from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Orange and Los Angeles County Fairs, the California State Fair, and the Sonoma Harvest Fair (for Sonoma County wines).  However, keep in mind that medals at wine competitions are not awarded like they are at the Olympics.  More than one wine can win a gold, silver, or bronze medal.  Judges award medals to wines that meet certain quality levels.  A double gold -- where all of the tasters think the wine is gold medal worthy -- is something to crow about.  A best of class award (best wine of a particular type and/or at at particular price point) is even better.  And winning the sweepstakes (best red, white, pink, sparkling, or dessert wine) is better yet.

Winemakers love and hate the influence of the wine magazines and critics.  Many folks criticize the 100 point scale, saying that it's impossible to discern a difference between a 94 and 95 point wine.  Nevertheless, good reviews in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and by Robert Parker are likely to spark sales.

So when you head out to wine country, decide whether you want to seek out the wines have been well reviewed or awarded or want to find some unexpected surprises.  You might find the latter more rewarding.  If you want some help picking wineries to visit on a private winetasting tour, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Special Events in Wine Country

Nary a week goes by without individual wineries or groups of wineries having special events to entice folks to visit.  It's hard to keep track of all of the festivals, special tastings, and food pairings being offered.  Some of the more fun events are offered by the associations that represent wineries in particular regions.

The Wine Road Northern Sonoma County represents the wineries in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys of Sonoma County.  Its website has a good listing of events in this part of wine country.  The Wine Road offers three major events each year, Winter Wineland (1/16 & 17), Barrel Tasting (3/6, 7, 13, & 14), and A Wine and Food Affair (11/6 & 7).  In addition, Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley offers Passport to Dry Creek Valley on April 24 and 25.  Russian River Valley Winegrowers has its annual Grape to Glass on August 20 - 22.  Finally, the Alexander Valley Winegrowers has an annual Taste of the Alexander Valley, usually during the first weekend in June.  (2010 dates have yet to be announced.)

The Anderson Valley Winegrowers has two annual events.  The first is the International Alsace Varietals Festival on February 20 and 21.  Later in the year, they celebrate Pinot Noir at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival from May 14 to 16.

The Lodi Wine and Visitor Center sponsors a Wine and Chocolate Weekend on February 13 and 14 and celebrates Zinfandel at the ZinFest from May 14 to 16.

The 20th annual Savor Sonoma Valley is being held on March 20 and 21 by the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.  The Alliance also sponsors Passport to Sonoma Valley on May 15 and 16, 2010.

Hospitality de Los Carneros offers two events each year:  April in Carneros on April 17 and 18 and Holidays in Carneros on November 20 and 21.

The wineries along the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley have their own association, the Silverado Trail Wineries Association, which sponsors an annual Silver Pass Weekend.  The 2010 date has yet to be announced.

This is just a small sample of wine-related events in Northern California.  Monterey wineries sponsor events, as do those in Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills.  It's tough to keep track of all the fun things to do in wine country.  The best resource I have found is Local Wine Events.  Visit the website for listings of wine events throughout the country.  You can also subscribe to the free, weekly newsletter of events in the regions of your choice.

If you would like to have a private tour of wine country during one of these events, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Monday, January 04, 2010

Winetasting on Spring Mountain

Last month, I wrote about Charbay's Still on the Hill, an interesting winery on Spring Mountain. Since the wineries on Spring Mountain are about 15 minutes outside of St. Helena, you might want to make Spring Mountain your sole destination for your day of winetasting.

In addition to Charbay, give Terra Valentine a try. Here you can do a sit-down tasting that pairs current releases of Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and/or Viognier with artisan cheeses. You'll also get to see the winery's production facilities as well as the building's unique architecture, and learn about its unusual history. Plan on spending between 75 and 90 minutes at the winery. The experience costs $30/person, which is waived when you buy some wine.

Also nearby is Schweiger Vineyards, a small, family-run producer of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux-style blend, and Port. On a clear day, which I didn't have on my visit, you'll have a great view of the Valley. You can do an hour-long tour and tasting for $10/person. Since there's no food on Spring Mountain, bring some with you and have a picnic at Schweiger.

Robert Keenan Winery is also a small producer near the top of the hill. The friendly tasting room staff will walk you through their Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot, and/or Cabernet Sauvignon. The last three are the winery's main focus. The current facility sits on the site of the Conradi Winery, which made wine from the late 19th century until the onset of Prohibition.  Robert Keenan is also a good spot for a picnic. There's no charge for tasting.

Lastly, lower down the hill is Spring Mountain Vineyard, a historic property that was featured in the old television show, "Falcon Crest." The winery offers three different tasting options. While I have yet to visit the winery, I am including it in this post on the recommendation of others and because of the property's rich history.

All of these wineries require an appointment to visit. To see a full listing of wineries on Spring Mountain, visit If you would like to take a private tour of Spring Mountain, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or