Starmont: A “New” Carneros Winery Worth A Visit

starmont_winery_1_20131125_1346039348Yesterday afternoon we visited Starmont, a “new” winery in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley that I predict will become an instant hit due to its combination of location, ambience, and delicious affordable wines.

Although the building and property have been in place since the late 2000s, the winery did not open to the public for direct sales until late last month (July, 2015). It seems the economic crisis of 2008 hit just as the winery was getting ready to open, and it was too much of a hardship for the owners to go direct at the time. Instead, they focused on wine production for distribution, and also sold many of their grapes to their sister winery, Merryvale, located in St. Helena.


The patio and grounds are dog-friendly!

Now, with the wine economy in full gear again, the owners felt it was time to reach out to the direct market and open the winery to tours and tastings. While reservations are required for the daily estate hike and barrel tasting, no reservations are necessary if you just want to drop in, which is what we did, with our dachshund Sadie, late on a Saturday afternoon. (Yes, they are dog-friendly!)

Situated just to the south and west of the towering Butler Bridge off highway 29, the Starmont winery is located at the end of Stanly Lane, which is accessible from highway 121 off of 29. The modern visitor center is very open air, and is surrounded by a sea of vineyards. This cool climate gets some lovely afternoon breezes from the San Pablo Bay, making it a comfortable place to sit outside and sip their wines, as compared to the blistering heat you might find this time of year up valley.

Being Carneros, the winery produces wines that thrive in these cooler conditions. Along with the usual suspects of Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they also produce several other wines, including a Merlot, a Cabernet (which I did not taste), a Viognier and a really nice Syrah, which is made in the Côte-Rôtie style (meaning that it has some Viognier blended in with the Syrah.)


Estate label (l) and Signature label (r)

Commensurate with the opening of the new tasting facility, Starmont has introduced two new label designs for its wines. The label with the S wrapped around a star is for their distribution wines, and the label without the S-star is for their Limited and Estate wines. Both labels still feature the distinctive shape of their building.

The 5 distribution wines, produced in large volumes, are referred to as “Starmont Signature Wines” and range in price from $19 to $29 retail. Yes, you read that right.


The price list; tastings are $20 and $35

The “Limited and Estate Wines,” which are made in much smaller production lots and only available through the winery, range from $19 to $55. Yes, you also read that right. The tasty Syrah I mentioned above, for example, is only $45, but only 50 cases were produced.

Two tastings are available: The Starmont Carneros Tasting (four Signature/distribution wines and the Estate Pinot Noir for $20 a flight) and the Starmont Single Vineyard Tasting (Rosé, Viognier, Estate Chardonnay, Estate Pinot and Estate Syrah for $35 a flight). We had one of each so we could try all the wines. As a wine writer, they comped our tasting, although I tried to dissuade them from doing so. (I never want to feel obligated to write a nice review just because I was comped.) However, we ended up purchasing a case of wine anyway, so in the end the point was moot. I decided to write about the winery due to it being new, and a great alternative to many of the high-priced wineries in the valley.


Outdoor seating, and tasting room in the rear of photo


Cornhole on the lawn!

A suggestion for those of you electing to visit is this: If you go as a group of 4 people, buy three different bottles of their wine (less than the cost of 4 tastings) and sit on the patio, soak in the breeze and the classic rock music playing on the speakers, and enjoy the Carneros experience! On the patio they even have couches and fire pits, which will be great as the weather gets cooler. They have lovely seating areas inside and outside, a laid-back vibe, and even Cornhole stations set up on the lawn. This is a great winery to visit as your last stop of the day due to its location at the south end of the Napa Valley and its proximity to the highway back to the bay area.tasting room


Posted in Napa, Uncategorized, Wine | 1 Comment

My Secret Life As An Uber Driver

uber2It’s time to confess: for the past six weeks I have been driving for Uber here in the Napa Valley. Up to this point only a handful of people have been in on this little secret, but it ‘s finally to the point where I want to share this interesting new endeavor and relate some of my experiences and opinions.

Over the next couple of weeks I will write a few blog posts about different aspects of my Uber life. There is far too much to communicate in a single post, and I learn or observe new things every day, so I will want to keep it current. My hope is that you will find these writings to be educational and maybe even humorous. If you have any questions about Uber, and how it works, let me know and I will be happy to answer them. It has been interesting to me that many Uber riders do not fully understand how the system works, so I am happy to share what I know.

Before I go much further, I want to say this: I am having a blast! This has exceeded my expectations about how much fun I could have driving around in my car for several hours a day. The experience is also teaching me what makes some people very successful in the customer service industry, while others fail miserably.

For those of you who have yet to experience Uber personally, Uber is a point-to-point ride sharing service that is part of what is now being called “the sharing economy.” At Uber, a person like me can turn his personal car into a taxicab, for all intents and purposes. A rider requests a ride using his smartphone, and is immediately paired with a driver in the area, who is also logged on to an app on his smartphone. A map guides the driver to the rider’s location, at which time the fare officially begins. The driver then takes the rider to the desired location, using a navigation map provided by the driver’s smartphone app. At the completion of the ride, the rider exits, the driver marks the ride as completed, and the fare is calculated and automatically charged to the rider’s pre-supplied debit or credit card. No cash changes hands, unless the rider wants to offer a tip in cash. The driver and the rider must rate each other on a scale of 1-5 stars before either can take a subsequent ride. The total fare (based on time plus distance, and any surge fees for low-supply/high-demand situations) is split thusly: the first dollar goes to Uber for a rider fee, then Uber takes 25% of the remaining fare and I get 75%. Uber calculates my fares each day, in real-time, and deposits my earnings into my bank account every Thursday.

There is a little more to it than that, which I will cover over time in my posts, but that is the simplistic explanation of how this works.

To complete this first blog post, I want to mention why I decided to abandon my never-ending pursuit of “all things wine” in favor of driving tourists around the Napa Valley. Since moving to Napa a little over four years ago, I have come to realize that the valley is not about wine; it is about hospitality. People here, whether in the wine business or not, want to share their bounty and good fortune with locals and visitors alike. Sure, there are always exceptions to this theory, but it never ceases to amaze me how generous and giving the people of the Napa Valley are with whatever they have.

I mentioned this to a passenger yesterday and he practically jumped out of my back seat and said “Yes! I agree with you 100%!” So, for me, driving for Uber (in Napa, anyway) is my way of sharing my home with visitors from around the world. I thoroughly enjoy being an “Ambassador for the Valley,” as another passenger referred to me just this morning. Because I know about the history of the valley, how wine is made, the economics of the industry, and personally know so many of its players, I am a really good tour guide for my guests. So much so, that several have hired me to be their guide for the day (all through Uber, of course). So this has become a way for me to amuse, delight and educate my guests, to the extent they are interested in that. And it is more fun than I ever thought it would be.

I will share more about the experience, my opinions of Uber, my observations on riders and much more in the coming weeks. And as I stated before, please let me know if you have any questions about Uber and how it works.

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Do You Deserve Good Service?

It is my belief that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that get good service when they travel, and those that don’t. I have often wondered why some people report getting great service at an establishment while others report quite the opposite at the same place. I think I finally have the answer. A bit of background:

My wife and I like to travel a lot, and we enjoy staying at fine hotels and dining at high-end restaurants from time to time. Before we try a new place I read a lot of reviews, from both professional and amateur reviewers. After our trip, I often write my own reviews of our visits. When I post an entry, I read other recent reviews to see how our experiences compared. What amazes me, over and over, is how many people complain about receiving poor service, when our experience has been exactly the opposite.

It happened again this week. We just returned from a 4-night stay at a high-end resort in Scottsdale, and we spent the majority of our time on property, enjoying the pool scene and the wonderful restaurants and bars. Every single staff member we came in contact with was professional, prompt, friendly and accommodating to our requests. We commented on the plane home how wonderful the service was, and how it helped justify the price we had paid to stay there. Yet when I read other recent reviews, from just a couple of days earlier, I was surprised by those who felt the service was poor, slow, or impersonal. How can the same employees provide different levels of service to different guests, just a few days apart?

My hypothesis is that, to a certain degree, the guest plays a large role in determining the level of service he or she will receive. How else to explain it? Countless times over the years, I have observed fellow guests in hotels, in restaurants and on cruise ships. I have watched and listened as they dealt with hotel staff, waiters and shipboard personnel. It is amazing to me how often these guests are rude, demanding, demeaning or downright boorish when it comes to interactions with service personnel. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the service professionals feel about dealing with these kinds of guests. Most will simply try to handle the situation to the point where the guest gets some level of satisfaction and finally goes away. It is unlikely that the guest will be “delighted” with this result.

Watching these types of interactions, I always feel empathy for the service provider. It is hard enough dealing with nice customers all day, much less the challenging ones. So what do we do that seems to result in more satisfying experiences when we dine out and travel? Here are a few tips:

Present a positive and friendly face. I know, it sounds pretty rudimentary, but you would be surprised how many surly people step up to a hotel registration desk or greet an arriving waiter. Make eye contact. Smile. Exchange pleasantries. Don’t always be in such a hurry to get your room key and move on. The initial impression you make with at the hotel registration desk may make or break your stay. The conversations you have here can lead to superior service. Ask questions. Ask for recommendations. Learn a little about the person assisting you, such as where he is from or what other sister properties she has worked at in the past. Ask the waiter what dishes he recommends. Even if you do not choose his suggestion, you have valued his opinion, and he likes that. Engaging with the staff on a quasi-personal level is always a good thing to do.

Make use of their nametags. My kids used to be embarrassed when I talked to the checkers at our neighborhood grocery store and called them by their first names. I said “if they didn’t want to be called by their names, they wouldn’t wear the nametags.” We try to learn the name of every service professional we come in contact with, whether they are wearing a nametag or not. We also encourage them to call us by our first names, rather than our last name. It’s friendlier that way, and that helps establish a more personal connection. And it makes sense that people will try harder to please people they know…even if they really don’t know you. Once you learn his or her name, remember it. Call her by name when you see her coming next time. Everyone likes to be remembered, and this will encourage her to remember you. Use her name when dealing with other staff members on site: “Susan recommended we come talk to you.” Now the new staff member feels compelled to help you even more because a colleague has referred you. And now you have a chance to make a new connection.

Ask nicely. Again, this sounds like standard practice. But not everyone does. And guess what kind of service people get when they are rude or demanding? Exactly. If you have a request, find someone who may be able to help you. Hopefully this is someone you have already met and whom you know on a first-name basis. Ask “is there any way possible for us to be able to do X?” Sometimes it just won’t be possible, and you should be okay with that. (Most service people actually want to make you happy. If they cannot accommodate your request, giving them grief does not make things better for you.) Sometimes your request won’t be possible, but the server will have another idea that you had not thought of. This constitutes a win. And sometimes, they will make your request happen just as you wished, at which point you should be grateful and most appreciative. The scope of the service, and the favor, will depend on whether tipping is required.

Do the unexpected. When we cruise we take small gifts (usually a small bag or box of candy from our hometown) with us and hand them out to key staff members at the beginning of the cruise. While tipping is expected or required at the end, we have found that these small gifts at the beginning pave the way to a great week ahead. Not only do the crew members appreciate the gesture, but they tell other crew members about the nice people in Cabin 712. You would be surprised how far this can go. Anyone can hand over money, but the act of bringing a local gift, however small, can make other people go out of their way to please you.

Finally, when something goes wrong, don’t lose your cool. In the travel world, things always go wrong; it’s part of the business. As stated above, service professionals (especially at higher-end places) usually want to do their best to delight you. But sometimes it is out of their control. Maybe it is past 4pm and your room is still not yet ready. Maybe the table you requested is not available. Maybe they ran out of the entrée you desired. Resist the temptation to make this a huge issue, thinking it will somehow get you something better or for free. In my experience, making a stink only serves to label you as “that obnoxious couple from Cabin 712,” and that word will get around. Instead, gently express your disappointment, but accept the result, and move on. The staff will appreciate that you did not cause a scene, and many times they will find another way to make it up to you. But let that be their idea, not yours.

Service is something we all get when we visit a restaurant, hotel, or other travel venue. But there is no guarantee that it will be good. While there are always going to be factors out of your control that affect your experience, there are also things that you can do to increase your chances of having a great experience. Happy traveling!

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Harvest 2014 is Underway!

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

Despite the fact that one of my neighbors is still shooting off 4th of July fireworks every evening, harvest started in the Napa Valley today. Yes, that harvest. The grapes. The grapes that make the wine that makes all this (making circular gesture with my hand as I gaze out over the valley) so amazing.

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes…

Thanks to a mild winter, warm spring, early bud break and warm humid summer (i.e. global warming), the folks at Mumm Napa Valley started harvesting grapes from their Game Farm vineyard in the

...and then showers the grapes with wine.

…and then showers the grapes with wine.

Oakville appellation today. Starting at 6am, they picked 16 tons of Pinot Noir grapes, which is above normal as far as yields go, although down a bit from last year’s 18 tons, according to winemaker Ludovic Dervin. Today’s harvest is 2-3 weeks ahead of the usual schedule (and two days ahead of last year), but the recent spate of high temperatures and high humidity made the early harvest of this vineyard necessary.

Mumm's finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm’s finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm makes sparkling wine of course, and unlike the grapes used to make Napa’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon wines, Mumm’s grapes are picked at lower Brix (sugar) levels, when they have higher acidity. Most of the Cabernet makers won’t harvest until mid-October, weather permitting, as they desire as much hang time on the vine as possible to make their sultry, opulent (expensive) red wines.

But now that Mumm has kicked things off, other wineries will soon be picking also, starting in the Carneros region (the southern part of Napa) with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. For us locals, it means we’ll see spotlights in the vineyards in the middle of the night as workers hand- and machine-pick the valuable fruit. It means we’ll see a lot more trucks and tractors on the road, not to mention thousands of those ubiquitous white grape bins.

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

And it also means I will undoubtedly hear the flatulent sound of the airbrakes on Ron Wicker’s reliable old Peterbilt at 6am as he hauls 24 tons of grapes at a time up the valley to waiting winery workers.

This is magic time in the Napa Valley, make no mistake about it. The energy and enthusiasm in the air is palpable, and everyone who lives here, or visits during this time, feels it. While outsiders may wonder “Doesn’t the whole idea of harvest get old after awhile? I mean, you do it every single year”—it doesn’t. Each year is a new beginning; the chance to make a new vintage of wine. Each harvest is full of calculations, watching the weather, guessing the right time to pick. It’s a logistics game for many, as you have to have the right workers and equipment at the right vineyard at the right time, or you may miss your window of opportunity. Winemaker Dervin, for example, only decided two days ago that harvest would begin today.

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine...

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine…

Adding to the energy of harvest is the amount of teamwork involved. I was fortunate to be invited to Mumm today as they celebrated the first harvest with 100 members of the winery staff. Most of these folks will spend the next two months working extra hours in order to process and ferment

..and then promptly douse each other.

..and then promptly douse each other.

the huge volume of sparkling wine that Mumm will produce this year. The blessing of the grapes and the celebration that I witnessed this morning will be repeated up and down the valley over the coming weeks, and every team at every winery will experience the adrenaline rush that is harvest.

As a resident about to experience my fourth harvest, I am still awed by the way everything comes together to put fermented grape juice in bottles. It takes an amazing number of people and machines, art and science, skill and luck, to make some of the best wines in the world. It also takes a community, and an infrastructure to support that community, or none of this would happen. So for me, and for thousands of others who live in wine country, today is a day to rejoice, to be thankful, and to get down to work.

Harvest is on. Hallelujah!

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You are drinking Rosé this summer, aren’t you?

20140605-102915-37755310.jpgSummer is here and the temps have creeped up and, at least in my backyard, it’s pretty toasty out when wine o’clock rolls around each day. (And yeah, yeah, I can already hear some of you sniping about how you think I start drinking wine at breakfast, etc.) Anyway, at 5pm, when most of the year we are cracking open the chardonnay, you’ll now find me uncorking (or unscrewing) a bottle of delicious rosé. And I am not alone.

For many years in this country, rosé wines were shunned while our European breathren and sistren reaped all the benefits of these delicious wines. Why?

Well, many people blame our indifference on the fact that, for a long time now, the most prominent bottle of rosé found on grocery store shelves has been Sutter Home White Zinfandel. While many call it a rosé, and technically it is, it actually is more of a blush wine. What really sets it apart from a true rosé is its sweetness. Rosé wines are fermented dry, or nearly dry, and certainly do not possess the soda pop-like qualities of Sutter Home’s famous offering. Unfortunately, many American wine drinkers drank their fill of White Zin, grew tired of the sweetness, assumed that all pink wines were the same, and gave up on rosés altogether.

What is a rosé wine? It’s basically a wine made from a wide variety of (mostly) red grapes but the juice from those grapes is only left on the skins long enough to impart a light red or pinkish hue. This method also eliminates, to a large degree, the tannins that are normally found in red wines, which come from the skins, stems and seeds. Once removed from the skins, the juice continues fermentation as if it were a white wine, usually in stainless steel tanks as opposed to oak. The resulting wines are dry, crisp and fruity, perfect for quenching your thirst on a hot summer afternoon or evening, and quite complementary to food.image

Another great thing about rosés is that, contrary to the red wines made from the same grapes, these wines are (usually) extremely affordable. I have been enjoying some sensational rosés of late for less than $16 per bottle. (The Charles and Charles rosé, which lists for $11.99 a bottle, could be had for $8.45 a bottle this week by buying six with your Safeway club card.)

So head on down to Safeway or Whole Foods or your nearest wine shop and buy 3 or 4 different bottles to try. I am currently enjoying the three bottles pictured herein, but there are countless other labels on the market. Drop me a note with your favorites, and I will give them a taste. Hey, all in the name of research!


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