Wine Tasting Tips

If you have ever been wine tasting, you have experienced tasting five wines in one sitting.  Now imagine this at every lunch and every dinner for eight days.  The trick of course is to not drink full glasses.  Eat small amounts and sip a bit of wine with each bite.  Wine writers don’t normally use dump buckets during meals but I have been in situations where I have left the table and dumped my glass if we have several wines to get through and I don’t like a wine enough to finish it.  I only have so much room for wine, food or alcohol and it’s better to admit it than not enjoy myself.

As would be expected, in Spain, Cava producer, Segura Viudas served sparkling wines with meals.  I’ve always enjoyed sparkling wines but I rarely served them with meals.  I was serving sparkling wine only when it was the main event.  I would pair appetizers with it, but the food was chosen to complement the wine. With our hosts, I had the opportunity to taste sparkling rosé and white wines with various courses and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. The wines are light, refreshing and lower in alcohol.  I learned that the right (dry not sweet) Cava pairs quite well with various foods. There’s a special bubbly stopper that you can buy to keep an open bottle fresh.

I am still a habitual still wine person preferring lower alcohol white wines and well-balanced reds (if a red has higher alcohol, as long as I can’t taste it, I don’t mind). During my tripSegura Viudas Creu de Lavit was served at most meals.  It’s a still white wine made from a Spanish grape called Xarel-lo.  It’s imported to the states and part of their excellent Heredad Collection.

On a side note, while I expected to be happy when a still red wine was served, I found that it made me much sleepier than the other wines.  My trip to Spain has fundamentally changed my perspective on pairing wine and food, what a surprise!




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What’s the best way to learn about wine?

I am currently enrolled in a Wines and Spirits Trust certification course, it costs hundreds of dollars, requires me to drive to San Francisco every week for six weeks and I have to memorize lots of information and then take a test.  It’s a lot of hard work but when I finish I should be able to look at almost any bottle of wine and tell you about its terroir and likely flavor profile.

Up to this point, I have learned everything I know through firsthand experience, traveling and tasting, interviewing winemakers and growers and absorbing as much as I could from Andrea Immer Robinson’s original Food Network TV programs and books by Chefs and Sommeliers. 

One of today’s new stars is Madeline Puckett, a poised, smart and entertaining wine educator with a free online video wine course.  Writer Clinton Stark described Madeline as “…a bit of a slinky goth siren, her voice like Ellen Barken.” You’ll enjoy her easy-going short videos and learn the way I did, the easy and fun way! Find her on You Tube or at Wine Folly.

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Winter Winelands, Sonoma

As part of my wine education, a few years ago, I spent 2 1/2 years visiting wineries, year-round, four days a week.  I loved talking to wine makers, owners and staff during the winter season.  During that time, and the 5 years before that, when I wasn’t studying, I was home (practicing pairing) so I rarely went to public wine events.

This year, Winter Winelands in Northern Sonoma County caught my attention. It’s one of my favorite wine regions, and although 6,000 people attend annually, the event is spread out over 30 miles including Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley and even some tasting rooms in Santa Rosa. The possible combinations of itineraries is almost endless.

I’ve decided to visit some old favorites in Dry Creek Valley. I’ll miss a few folks over in the Russian River (like John Tyler) but I’m sure I’ll be inspired to come back another weekend to say hello.  My friend Herlinda and I will be in my little roadster starting at Bella Wine Vineyards & Wine Caves. It’s beautiful inside the caves with tasting stations throughout, the perfect escape when it’s chilly outside and the vineyards are bare and boring.  Warmed up, we’ll be ready to hit the red carpet at Dry Creek Vineyard where there are always good deals and a variety of wines to taste. (I’ll be looking for a new vintage of their dessert wine Soleil.)

Then off to a rare public opening of a secret winery that is usually appointment only. Note: Not on the Winelands list but tastings are complimentary for Wine Road participants. Only open Saturday, not Sunday.  From there, a drive up to Michel Schlumberger to see friends, it’s always a great place for a party (inside scoop that they will have some fabulous deals, the more you buy, the more you save).  Might end our day here but I’d love to stop by Merriam Vineyards to taste through their outstanding wines. Merriam’s also serving braised pork and grits. Yum!

Make your itinerary at Winter Wineland, The Wine Road.

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Vine Rover Tours

I found Vine Rover Tours when I was looking for a car service that was cool and different.  I was really excited when I discovered their open air land rovers.  After getting a good feeling from their web site, I met with Jay Pelm, the owner.  He’s totally awesome.  He’s cool, laid back, smiles easily and has very loyal fans that keep him and his drivers busy.

In the summer of 2009, I worked for him for a few months so I could learn more about what visitors want.  He was a wonderful (patient) teacher.  I learned how to drive the land rovers (5-on-the-floor) and the luxury SUV with the video camera on the tailgate.  I met so many wonderful people.  All my guests have been happy and sweet, even when I took a wrong turn in the (new-to-me) Alexander Valley!

What I’ve learned is that some people have an itinerary already in mind (which is totally fine), but most people say, take us to your favorite places!  I love that.  I take them to places where I know they’ll be treated as my personal guests, be introduced to great (well-priced) wine & and enjoy some sort of spectacular element like it’s off-the-beaten path, unexpected views, barrel tasting, etc.

I still guide with Jay as often as I can.  If you want me to be your guide, or set you up with Jay, let me know.

Vine Rover Tours web site.

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White Oak Winery

White Oak WInery

When I want a quiet wine tasting day, I go to Alexander Valley.  There’s something about it that encourages me to slow down, look at the scenery and linger at the wineries.  Visiting this area means you will taste many wines from Napa, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and other AVAs as well as the Alexander Valley.  It also means that each winery will be a special place unto itself–places that easily feel like a second home to guests.

1st Stop Jordan Estate (11:00 a.m.)

Reserve your spot for the Winery Tour & Tasting, available Monday – Saturday.  If you’ve been to the Dry Creek Valley with it’s modest and farm-like wineries, Jordan may seem a bit stuffy from appearances.  But don’t be fooled, the owners and staff are some of the most warmhearted, welcoming and just plain nice people in the industry.  They make one Cabernet Sauvignon and one Chardonnay every year.  While I always enjoy whatever they are pouring, the library wines (older vintages) whisper to me as soon as I walk into the library.  I also wish I could just live in the kitchen with their full-time Chef who makes gorgeously presented small bites to go with the wines. John Jordan continues his parents’ desire to share an estate experience with visitors.  I highly recommend joining their Estate Rewards program.  It is the only way you’ll get an invitation to private events and be able to stay in one of the amazing suites. Tip: Jordan wines are found in many restaurants and retail shops around the world.

2nd Stop Jim Town Store (12:30 pm)

Enjoy the brief drive up-valley to the only place to eat in the area.  You can’t miss the vintage building with an old faded-red truck parked next door.  Tip: It’s a small ordering area so if you peek at the current menu online, you’ll be prepared to order exactly what tickles your fancy.  And take your time, Jim Town has a wine country gift shop, lots of goodies in the cold case (I recommend the uber-rich chocolate pudding) and a wine shop.  Although you can eat in the indoor/outdoor colorful dining area behind the store, I recommend you move on over to your 3rd stop for a more private setting.

3rd Stop White Oak Winery (1:00 pm)

I suggest picnicking at White Oak because the wines are fantastic with food, very reasonably priced and high quality and there are several varietals so you’ll be able to get something to please everyone.  For whites, they make a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, both from the Russian River AVA.  For reds, they make a Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and a Cab/Merlot from Napa grapes and a Zinfandel and a Bordeaux blend from Alexander Valley grapes.  I find White Oak’s wines to be made in an elegant style yet refreshingly accessible.  The staff is friendly, accommodating and will make you feel welcome.  Call ahead if you have a large party to reserve a picnic spot.

4th Stop Robert Young Estate Winery (2:30 pm)

Drive across the pretty valley enjoying photo opportunities along the way until you see a two-story white farmhouse and white barn.  You’ll be drawn to the house, but alas, that’s not the tasting room.  Pass the flowers and antique farm equipment and enter the intimate tasting room.  You will immediately feel welcome by the staff and most likely make new friends with other guests.  The wines are surrounded by ribbons and awards and you’ll enjoy several Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons and an Estate Merlot–whatever they have on hand. They make about 5,000-7,000 cases a year, so visiting may be a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to taste these exceptional wines.  There is a 3,000 sq ft’ cave on the property and you may be able to get an impromptu tour if they aren’t busy; otherwise, make a tour appointment.  However, just hanging out, tasting the wines and casually chatting with the staff is really all you need to enjoy the estate.  Ask lots of questions, they have a great story!

Back to Healdsburg (4:00ish)

You’ve just enjoyed a kick-back day in Alexander Valley and perhaps you’re not quite ready for a brief siesta before dinner.  I suggest one more stop in town at Hawley Tasting Room & Gallery in downtown Healdsburg across the street from Fideaux, the dog & cat gift shop. Hawley wines are consistently some of the best I’ve ever tasted and the tasting room is open daily until 6:00 pm.

PS: My favorite place to stay in Healdsburg.  My favorite place to eat.

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White Oak Vineyards & Winery

White Oak Winery

The pretty Alexander Valley tucked into Sonoma County’s northern corner is quite different from its famous neighbors, Dry Creek Valley (filled with Zinfandel pursuers) and Russian River Valley (teaming with Pinot Noir collectors). There is a hidden, quiet, unassuming quality to the area.  Perhaps this is because the main road is dotted with occasional signs and driveways and most of the wineries are hidden from view.  It’s also a monoculture grape-growing region, so a big part of the area’s appeal is being surrounded by rows and rows of vineyards.

It”s easy and pleasant to get around this unhurried and uncrowded area, yet it’s also an ideal place to enjoy open-air transportation.  Unless you have your own convertible, your choices are a horse-drawn Wine Carriage or a customized Land-Rover called the Vine Rover.

The Wine Carriage takes you through the vineyards and includes a barrel tasting & cave tour at Alexander Valley Vineyards, guided tours, premium tastings and a gourmet picnic and tasting at White Oak Vineyards & Winery, Hannah Winery, or Soda Rock Winery.

Vine Rover Tours offers customized tours, VIP tastings, friendly and knowledgeable guides.  And because I’m a guide with Vine Rover Tours, I’ll introduce you to some of my favorite wineries.

To book Vine Rover Tours, call Jay (707) 838-1405.  For the Wine Carriage call Bret at (707) 849-8989. Both are available year-round as weather permits.

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Where to Stay in Sonoma

Loxton Winery, Australian Wine maker, Sonoma, CA

Loxton Winery

If you’re looking for a California resort in the town of Sonoma, MacArthur Place is the only game in town. It has everything I want in a resort—-a pool, spa, boutique shopping (next to the Spa), complimentary wine & cheese pairings in the Library, a martini bar, on-site breakfast (in bed too), a variety of room choices (all fabulously decorated) and flower gardens with sculptures (e.g., eye candy).  It’s just a few blocks from the Sonoma Plaza on a residential, tree-lined street and very convenient for wine tasting in that area.

If you want privacy & a kitchen, I recommend renting a home.  I have a great recommendation in the Kenwood/Glen Ellen, a beautiful area with lovely wineries.

(Picture is of Loxton Cellars.)

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This is a free itinerary to use when you get the Guide Book. No reason to pay $350 or more for a personal travel service.  I promise you’ll love my insider tour of fabulous wineries and accommodations.

Day 1

Welcome to Wine Country! Arrive at SFO (close), Oakland International Airport (closer) or Charles M. Schluz Airport (closest) in Santa Rosa.  Gather your luggage & proceed to your private guest house in Kenwood.  Upon arrival, take a stroll through the vineyards or neighboring Sugarloaf State Park to shake off the travel dust.  Return to your room, decant the complimentary Girl with a Glass etched bottle of Benziger Merlot & bring it to the little table under the oak tree.  Enjoy a little apré dinner wine to stimulate your appetite before dining at the amazing gourmet yet casual Vineyard Inn Bar & Grill, owned by the Casa Verde owners, Steve & Colleen Rose. (Casa Verde guests will find a $25 certificate to the restaurant in their room.) End the evening at Colleen’s Bar and enjoy a top-shelf cocktail infused with organic fruits & herbs.  Your 1st day & you’re now an Insider!

Day 2

Enjoy a spectacular breakfast served by Colleen’s mom, a gracious retiree who will dote on you or disappear, depending on what you want. She’s a fountain of local information if you so desire.  After your fresh & filling meal, drive down the road to your Walk About with the Winemaker appointment (Loxton Cellars).  After a walk in the vineyards & a stand up tasting with Chris, you’re ready for a lux seated wine & cheese tasting at Kunde Family Estate. Relax on the leather couches beneath the tall windows while your wine educator fills 4 glasses beautifully arranged before you. Enjoy discovering what which pairings are your favorites.  End the day shopping, eating & drinking on Sonoma Plaza. (Tips on where to go in your guide book.)

Day 3

Today you’re going to explore an entirely different part of Sonoma County, the Dry Creek AVA & Healdsburg.  After enjoying breakfast at “home” or on the Sonoma Plaza, drive over to Dry Creek AVA  (you can take the back roads if you’re feeling adventuresome).  You’ll trade your vineyard paradise to be spoiled silly at the Honor Mansion. Check in later in the day after using your VIP Passes at 2 wineries in the rural Dry Creek Valley. First stop, Quivira, for your private tour of their biodynamic farming, estate gardens & animals. Taste a wide range of varietals with your wine educator.  You’ll be hungry after your tour, so go back down the road a few minute to Dry Creek General & grab a sandwich.  Sit outside on the deck & you’re likely to meet wine tasters form all over the world.  After lunch, drive towards Quivira again, but  turn left almost across from Quivira on to a secluded country lane (Wine Creek Rd) until you reach the gate of the charming Michel Schlumberger.

Make sure you reserve your VIP status by mentioning that you have a Guidebook when you call for reservations.  Other details are in the guidebook.

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Best B&B in Healdsburg

Honor Mansion, Healdsburg

I love luxury & value.  Honor Mansion’s staff treats their guests like VIP’s. When you arrive, your room will be cooled to perfection or a warm fire will be lit to welcome you.  Every little detail is taken care of, European linens, feather beds, fresh flowers, “butler’s basket” for items you forgot to pack, 24 hour espresso/cappuccino machine, full gourmet breakfast with complimentary mimosa, afternoon & evening refreshments and more.

When you drive up, it looks lovely but you have no idea what awaits you until you enter the grounds. You’ll never want to leave. If you want to take a break from wine tasting, hang out at your “very own resort” — sunbathe by the pool, challenge your neighbor to Bocce Ball, learn how to play Croquet, play a little half-court hoops, jog the 1/4 mile jogging trail or just walk the grounds by the vineyards, relax and watch the Koi.  (The Koi are super cute & friendly.  I have some great pictures of them greeting guests with their mouths wide open.)

The staff is always friendly, accommodating and helpful. They’ll set you up with Jay (or me if available) so you can taste and tour in an open air land rover.

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Casa Verde Guest House View

Centrally located in the little village of Kenwood, this certified “green” guest house is only a few years old.  It’s simple yet luxurious.  Secluded off a country lane, the night sky is beautiful, filled with stars hanging over the vineyards nestled beneath the Mayacama mountains.

The owners, Steve & Colleen Rose also own the Vineyards Inn Bar & Grill.  They are pioneers in the organic, farm fresh movement, living the lifestyle way before everyone else jumped on the “green” band wagon.

That’s what makes this such a nice property.  If they hadn’t told me it was built “green,” I wouldn’t have known.  What stands out as you drive through the gate is the giant oak tree and the peaceful setting, seemingly far away from the highway but only five minutes at most to wineries and restaurants.

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