Thursday, February 25, 2010

Criteria for Tasting Room Reviews

I've been commenting on tasting rooms for over 4 years now and thought I should provide a little background on how I come to talk about a particular winery or tasting room.

First, I only comment on tasting rooms or wineries that I have personally visited.  Half of the wineries in Napa and Sonoma are not open to the public.  Of those that welcome visitors either by advance appointment or by dropping in,  I have visited about 125 of Sonoma's 270 wineries and tasting rooms and 145 of Napa's 335 wineries and tasting rooms.  The vast majority of those I have yet to get to require an appointment to visit.

Second, I operate under the assumption that the wine is good at nearly all of the tasting rooms in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties.  Not every winery has wine that is going to be to your or my taste but the wines are generally good.  There are many people far more qualified than me who review wines.  Besides visiting wine country to taste wine is more about the experience than the quality of the wine.

Third, I generally only post positive reviews.  I want to give my readers information on wineries and tasting rooms to seek out.  Most tasting rooms are neither good nor bad; they're much like every other tasting room.  However some tasting rooms are special and are worth visiting.  Many factors contribute to a positive review including friendly tasting room staff, unique architecture, good value, an opportunity to meet the owner and/or winemaker, pretty scenery, an unusual tasting experience, and/or an interesting tour.  On the rare occasion when I say something negative about a winery or tasting room, it's because I think the visitor is not getting a quality experience.

Fourth, I do not get compensated for my reviews.  Many guests on my tours ask if the wineries give me anything to thank me for bringing visitors to their tasting rooms.  At the end of the year, a couple wineries may give me a bottle or two, but that's it.  I've never received anything for a positive review other than an e-mail thanking me.

I hope this background is helpful.  Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sit Down, Relax, and Enjoy Some Wine

When you drop in to taste at a winery, you usually stand up at the counter.  Wineries do this to help with turnover and for space considerations.  It's rare to find a winery, that doesn't require an an appointment, where you can sit down and relax with your wine.  But there are some!

In Napa, the three French-owned sparkling wine producers all have tables where you can sit with your wine.  My favorite is Domaine Carneros, which has servers who take your order and then bring your wines, cheese, and/or caviar to you. The view of the rolling vineyards from Domaine Carneros' terrace is beautiful.  Mumm Napa Valley is also very nice.  It too has servers and a lovely view from the patio.  However, Mumm does not offer any food.  Domaine Chandon is my least favorite of the three While it has tables in its tasting room and offers some food, it does not have servers.  When you want to get your next glass of wine, you must get up and return to the tasting bar.  Plus the view from the patio is not as nice as the views at Domaine Carneros or Mumm Napa Valley.

Frog's Leap in Rutherford offers a tasting of four wines, accompanied by some cheese, nuts, and dried fruit on the terrace overlooking its organic gardens and vineyards.  This is one of the more pleasant spots to sit and taste wine.

Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville has a large table in the To Kalon Room, where you can sit while you taste Mondavi's reserve wines.  On a cold day, it's nice to taste your wine by the fireplace.

In the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, Lynmar Winery has tables in the tasting room, on the patio, and next to the garden.  You order at the counter, but the friendly staff will bring your Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Syrah to your table.

There may be other wineries where you can sit down while you enjoy your wine, but either I am forgetting them or have not yet visited the tasting rooms.  If you know of any, please comment below.

If you would like to take a private wine country tour that includes some of these wineries, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Sonoma County IPhone Application

Yesterday, the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau released an application (app.) for the IPhone to help visitors to the county.  As soon as I found out this morning, I immediately downloaded it.  The coolest feature is the wine section where you can search the wineries by varietal (type of grape).  So next time you are in Kenwood in search of a Barbera, you can use the app. to find out which wineries produce one, their distances from your current location, and how to drive to each one.  For me this is the best feature in the app.

The app. also lets you find lodging, sorted by "Hotel/Motel/Lodge,"  "Inn/Bed & Breakfast," "RV/Camping,", and "Vacation Rentals."  This too is a helpful feature but the listing is not complete for the county.  I assume this is because some businesses choose not to be a member of the Bureau.

Other features include Breweries, spas, restaurants, museums, events, nightlife, and spas.  These you can sort alphabetically or by distance from your current location.  A great improvement for the next release would be to be able to sort the restaurants by cuisine.  To find the app., visit the IPhone Applications Store and select iVisit Sonoma County.

All in all, this is a great app. for wine lovers.  The tourism folks in Sonoma County really do a terrific job, whether they work for the Tourism Bureau, the Wine Road Northern Sonoma County, or the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.  Their neighbors to the east could learn something!

If you want to take a private tour of Sonoma County wine country, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours at (866) 326-4237 or

Monday, February 08, 2010

Best Eating Small Town in the United States

Yountville, in the Napa Valley, must be the best easting small town in the United States.  With just over 3,000 residents, Yountville is home to one restaurant that has received three stars from the Michelin guide and three that have received one star.  To receive one star is an honor.  Three stars is as good as it gets in fine dining.  The three-star restaurant is Thomas Keller's French Laundry.  Keller also owns Bouchon, which has received one star.  The other one-star restaurants are Redd and Etoile at Domaine Chandon, the only winery in the Napa Valley to have a restaurant.

Also in town are Bistro Jeanty for fine French cuisine Bardessono for California food, and Bottega for Italian cuisine.  More casual places include Pacific Blue, Hurley's, and Cantinetta Piero.  Just north of Yountville are Mustard's Grill and Brix.  The former serves excellent American food and the latter is known for its California cuisine.

If this isn't enough, you can get excellent pastries at Bouchon Bakery, paninis at.Napa Style, and coffee at the Coffee Caboose.

Lastly, Yountville has a bunch of tasting rooms within a short walk of each other.  They include Hill Family, Hope and Grace, Girard, Jessup, and Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley.

Having all of this food and wine at hand, makes Yountville the perfect place to base your Napa Valley vacation.  Staying in Yountville means you can have an excellent dinner and not worry about drinking too much wine as you can just walk back to your hotel, inn, or bed and breakfast.