It’s no secret that there are more than 600 licensed wine producers in the greater Napa region (and the number may be much higher, based on what I have read.) But what most people are surprised to learn is that there are only 75 wineries that are open for public tastings. Yup. Seventy-five. How can that be?
Apparently the powers that be decided they did not want to have Highway 29 and Silverado Trail overrun by tour buses, limos and overserved tourists, so they limited the number of places where folks can just pop in and sip wine. Wineries that were established prior to 1990 were allowed to keep their public tasting permits, and all wineries created after that date were restricted to “by appointment only” tasting (if they offer tastings at all). So, a hundred or more wineries now offer tasting with reservations (and fees), and those reservations in most cases must truly be made in advance. Occasionally you may be able to make what is known locally as “a ten-second reservation” just by showing up and making doe-eyes at the staff, but that is the exception and not the rule.
An unintended consequence of this 75-winery limit is that the permits have become extremely valuable, particularly when a winery changes hands or goes out of business. Many open wineries today, like Darioush, received their permit when they bought another winery, which is how newer wineries are able to offer public tastings.
While you may think that wineries not possessing one of the 75 permits would be at a disadvantage, that is not always the case. Many of the smaller wineries prefer having tastings by appointment only, partly because they produce wine in small quantities and don’t need the traffic that the big tour buses bring. (They also don’t want the hassle of cleaning up after the hordes of drunken partiers who show up late in the day to down a few more glasses and often end up “driving the porcelain bus” in the bathroom.) No, the smaller wineries enjoy having a more predictable and manageable flow of traffic, and they use the tasting opportunities to cater to their wine club members who often make return visits to pick up their shipments and sample the latest offerings.
Many wineries, of course, are completely private and are not open to anyone, reservation or no, and sell everything they make without having to open their doors to anyone. Oh, how nice to be a Harlan or a Bryant Family Vineyards.
With all this in mind, I wanted to tell you about a recent visit we made to Swanson Vineyards, a reservation-required winery in Rutherford, about halfway up Highway 29. Swanson has for years offered a special “Salon Tasting” for $65 per person, which believe it or not is not waived even if you purchase wine. However, the one-hour tasting in a re-created French salon is a delightful experience. Here you will sit in a group of no more than 8 people and enjoy a leisurely and informative tasting of some of the winery’s best wines, with interesting “nibbles” to accompany the offerings. A knowledgeable guide, or “salonniere,” conducts the tasting and tells you about the Swanson family, the vineyards, and the genesis of the salon as you enjoy the wines.
The nibbles are tasty and interesting (a potato chip served with a dollop of caviar and crème fraiche, three different types of cheeses with thin crackers, and a chocolate bonbon sprinkled with curry powder) but they serve an even more interesting purpose. You see, all of the foods have salt and fat in them, which immediately take command of your tastebuds. While the wines are good, they end up tasting better than they really are (in my non-educated opinion) due to the fact that almost ANY wine would taste good if you paired it with a rich, fatty or salty cheese, or chocolate. The trick works well, as most participants end up buying a few bottles to take home based on their perception of how good the wine was.
As I said, the wines are not bad, the Alexis Cabernet is pretty decent, and their dessert wines (they make several; we had the “Crepescule” which was delicious) are very good. They actually make more Merlot than anything else, and also make a number of other varietals (Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, etc.).
Recently the Swansons added a fun little twist called “The Sip Shoppe” to the property, which is an informal tasting room (reservations still preferred, but not always required) where you can have a leisurely tasting of small samples of their wines with small food bites and sit outside in the garden. The Sip Shoppe itself is a cheery red-and-white circus tent and the room is set up to offer wines and gifts in a light-hearted environment. You can learn all about the Swanson estate and their wines on their unusually cheery little website at http://www.swansonvineyards.com.
Okay, that’s two down and 598 to go.