Suggestions for Optimizing Your Visit to the Napa Valley

Nov 2012 Misc 032A fellow wine writer posted a blog entry earlier this summer entitled “10 Warnings for Visitors to Napa Valley” which caught my eye because I had been meaning to pen an entry on advice for wine country visitors myself. Although Tom Wark’s blog entry sounds negative, the headline is really for dramatic effect. We all want people to visit us up here, but Tom wanted to make sure people know what they are getting into when they make the journey. Tom’s points are all valid, and help visitors set expectations before they arrive. I have a few additional suggestions to help prepare folks for their visits to this amazing place. Taken together, these two lists give you a great idea of what to expect, and offer helpful tips that can enhance your experience in the Napa Valley, whether you are here for a day or a week.

Plan ahead.  So many of my friends from the Bay Area email me and say “Hey, we will be in the Napa Valley this coming weekend; where should we go?” While it is always easy to just visit Napa on a whim, the lack of advance planning really has a bearing on where you can go to taste, not to mention where you can get a dinner reservation. People from all over the world visit Napa Valley, and they plan their trips FAR in advance. When it is busy here (as it has been for the past three months), tasting appointments at the good wineries get booked up months in advance for weekends, and weeks in advance for weekdays. There are 75 wineries here which are open to the public, meaning no reservation is necessary, but there will usually be throngs and busloads of tourists there with you, which makes a tasting quite impersonal. The best wineries, or at least the more exclusive ones, do tastings by appointment only. So do yourselves a favor and book as far in advance as possible. The same goes for restaurants. Recent publicity about the Napa Valley dining scene has made it harder than ever to get a primetime table at the many great restaurants here. Book way ahead. Or, be willing to dine early or late. Better yet, have lunch at one of the good restaurants and try one of the many very-good, lesser-known restaurants for dinner. Shoot me an email and I can make some suggestions.

viewGet up off the floor. Although I have uttered this phrase to friends who have been over-served, what I really mean is this: there are quite a few outstanding wineries in the Napa Valley which are in the hills, up off the valley floor. They are, for the most part, private, meaning you must have a reservation to visit. And they are not always easy to find. But intrepid travelers who do their homework will be well-rewarded with great wines, hospitable owners and tasting room staffs, scintillating views, and less traffic. Pritchard Hill, a region (which should be its own AVA, but isn’t) on the east side of the valley, features a number of outstanding by-appointment wineries, including David Arthur Vineyards, Chappellet, OVID, Continuum, Montagne, Brand, and a few others who you can’t visit, no matter what. These experiences are far different from forcing your way to the tasting room counter at a place like, say, Chimney Rock. There are also outstanding wineries up Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder, and up the Oakville Grade, to name a few. Do your homework, make some phone calls, and visit these hidden gems. It will change your entire opinion of the Napa Valley.

Buy some wine. It’s no secret that wineries charge for tastings today, unlike 30 years ago when people could taste for free. Those days are long gone. Some tastings up here are ridiculously expensive. In large part, the prices are intended to eliminate the riff-raff. And usually (but not always) the tasting fee will be waived for folks who buy at least a couple of bottles of wine, or join the wine club. (I went to a well-known winery last year, on the Trail, and the tasting was $65 per person, or $130 for the two of us. The wine is $145 a bottle. All told, we were probably served a half-bottle of wine during our tasting, and a tiny bit of cheese. I did not buy any wine, and felt totally ripped-off at the end of the tasting.) Anyway, my admonition is this: at the end of your tasting, find the wines you liked the most, and at least buy a few bottles of it. The staff has just spent 60-90 minutes with you, and they only have so many selling opportunities per day. If you don’t intend to buy any wine, then visit the public wineries on Highway 29 where they cater more to tasters rather than buyers. But be prepared to pay the tasting fee.

Map your trip. All too often I hear about visitors who end up traversing the length of the valley multiple times during the course of their visit, whether it’s a single day or over several days. Driving in the Napa Valley, especially on weekends, can really take the fun out of an otherwise great visit. Traffic is heavy, the roads are single-lane, people are lost, and getting around can be a pain. Plan your trip so that you visit wineries in an order that makes sense. Don’t think you can have a tasting in Calistoga at 10am and make it to a tasting in Yountville at 11:30.  Yes, you should be able to do it, but trust me when I say you won’t. And nothing is worse than being 20 minutes late for a tasting, because wineries book appointments on tight schedules with little room for tardy customers. If you are coming for the day, start at the northernmost venue on your itinerary and work your way back down as the day progresses. Traffic getting out of the valley starts getting really bad at about 4pm, so plan accordingly. In addition:

Napa-Valley-Tourist-mapKnow your roads. There are two main north-south roads traversing the valley: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. A series of cross-roads connects the two. Highway 29, on the west, is the most popular thoroughfare and has the biggest-name wineries and restaurants on it. Silverado Trail, to the east, is not as straight a shot, but is far less congested and traffic moves much faster. Savvy visitors know to use the Trail for quick access to the appellation/town where they have an appointment, then cross over to 29 (if necessary) on one of the cross-roads in order to minimize the amount of driving on 29. An important note about the cross-roads: Turning left from a cross-road to 29 South can be very difficult, because there aren’t stoplights to control traffic at most of those intersections. Zinfandel Lane, Rutherford Cross, and Oakville Cross are great ways to access 29 from the Trail, but none of these intersections at 29 have stoplights and it can be extremely difficult to turn left (south) on 29 here. Traffic is so heavy that you can wait ten minutes to turn. It is always easier to turn right on 29 and go north than it is to go south. However, the cross-roads at Oak Knoll Avenue,  Yountville and Pope St. in St. Helena have stoplights at 29, so those are better places to cross and turn south. The cross-roads further north of the town of St. Helena are much easier to turn from, as traffic is much lighter north of St. Helena. No matter which parts of the valley you visit, just allow more travel time than you think you need.

Ask Questions. When you attend a by-appointment tasting, engage the host or hostess in conversation. Their knowledge is amazing, and not just of the wines they are pouring. The Napa Valley has a rich and colorful history, and they can tell you about it. I always ask the host “What is a great wine in the Napa Valley I have never heard of,” and I keep a list of the answers. Those names become my bucket-list for future visits, and I have tried some outstanding wines that way. Also, often times when you engage the hosts, they will open up a bottle of something that they wouldn’t normally pour and treat you to something special. These are the moments that make the Valley so unique, and it’s why people come back every year to their favorite spots (and why you have such a hard time getting an appointment!)

Finally, don’t overdo it. So many people come up here and try to cram five tastings into a day, and then go to dinner. By the end of the day they act like idiots, can’t remember what they drank and liked, and many of the revelers get sick. Don’t be an amateur.  When we have friends up for a day or weekend, we limit ourselves to two tastings a day: one before lunch, and one after. Each tasting is about 90 minutes, and usually includes a tour and a number of wines. We have lunch in between, and usually go very light on the wine with lunch. Once you have had three hours of tastings, another 90 minutes for lunch, and driving time, that’s a pretty full day, and there is still dinner to go. We then head home for a nap, a change of clothes, and then go out for dinner or, more common, cook an amazing dinner at home, and serve the great wines we bought earlier in the day.  (With the proliferation of DUI checkpoints at night and the dearth of cabs in this town, dining in is a better way to go.)  Now, I do often suggest to my friends that they might want to hit one of the sparkling wine houses (Mumm, Domaine Chandon, or Domaine Carneros) at the end of the day on their way out of the valley, just to cap off a nice day. Since no appointments are necessary, it is easy to drop in and enjoy a glass or two of bubbles before heading to dinner or driving back to the Bay Area.

I am always free to answer questions, so please don’t hesitate to ask. Just drop me a note and I will reply as soon as I am able. Enjoy the Napa Valley!

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My two cents on wine scores, Millennials and the like

The twitter-verse the past few weeks has been all, well, a-twitter with dozens of posts from wine writers spewing forth (and I use the term “spewing” intentionally) their opinions about the future of wine scores and just how, exactly, Millennials make buying decisions about wine. Given that I am now a wine writer I have decided that I have every right to chime in on the subject.

The issues of wine scores and marketing to Millennials are really separate subjects, but they do overlap (“Do Millennials give a rat’s ass about wine scores?”) I will give my opinion on the two subjects separately.

As for the wine scoring system, it is my opinion (and I have never been wrong when it comes to my opinion) that scores will continue to be given by many critics, but not all. It’s a way of comparing one wine to another…and it’s not. I despise wine scores, personally, for reasons I will list in a moment. But will scoring continue? Of course it will. It’s established, it’s easy, and Robert Parker is coming back to rate Northern California wines, which means we are doomed.

Why do I detest wine scores? For one thing, many of us “common-folk” (people who aren’t wine bluebloods) don’t trust the scores in the first place. People have always speculated that reviewers could be bought off, either directly (cash) or indirectly (“Please accept my year-long advertising campaign in your magazine.”) To be clear, I am not saying that any of this actually happens. But plenty of people think it does, enough to make many buyers skeptical about wine scores overall.

Second, many times high wine scores result in the prices of those wines increasing to ridiculous amounts. Obviously this is opportunism (read “greed”) on the part of the vintner. I used to occasionally buy a few bottles of Vérité wines from over in Windsor, even at $225 a bottle. Then Parker gave all three of their wines (Le Désir, La Joie and La Muse) 100 points in 2007 and all of a sudden the price soared to $450 a bottle. Thanks, but I won’t be buying any more at that price.

Finally, who is to say that some person I don’t know (any reviewer) would evaluate a wine the way I would? I recently tasted at Cardinale winery in Oakville, and was allowed to sample the 2006, 2007 and 2008 releases. They were priced at $250-300 a bottle, and had scores in the low- to mid-90s from well-known reviewers. I didn’t like any of them. Then they served me their sister wine, Lokoya, and I sampled the three same vintages, which also had lofty scores and were priced even higher at $350-400 a bottle. I disliked them, as well. Even if they were $100 a bottle I would not have bought them. And therein lies the problem with scores for me.

So if scores are questionable, result in higher-priced wines, and are subjective, what do I suggest instead? At the recent Wine Writers Symposium at the Meadowood in Napa Valley, we discussed this topic at length. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and Susan Kostrzewa of the Wine Enthusiast chaired a discussion on how to write better wine reviews that would allow people to understand what a wine may actually taste like using terms people could relate to. In this discussion, scores were either relegated to lesser importance, or eliminated altogether. I happen to be one who agrees with this approach. A well-written review using a limited list of common terms and descriptors, which also suggests appropriate food pairings, would help me decide if a wine fit my personal preferences.

Now with all of the above considerations, let’s briefly address the Millennials. (For those who are not certain, Millennials are also known as “Generation Y,” and were born between 1980 and 2000.) These younger buyers, in their 20’s and early 30’s, are a huge segment of the buying public and are now shifting from beer and cocktails to wines. They are the future of the wine market. (I should point out that they are not moving away from beer and spirits, but are adding wine to the mix.) As their earning power grows, so does their interest in and budget for better wines. The big question is how to reach these buyers, because they are children of the digital age and do not read Wine Spectator like their fathers do/did.

Many “experts” (tongue planted firmly in cheek) insist that Millennials only communicate via smartphones over social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else is hot at the moment) so therefore scores and wine magazines are irrelevant. Others insist that “wine-ignorant friends who post online” and other unknown amateur wine analysts on Cellartracker will never replace the wisened old wine reviewers who are in print and online.

My daughter, about to turn 27, is a Millennial, and perfectly fits the group being talked about. She lives in an over-priced apartment in San Francisco, makes a very good 5-figure salary, doesn’t own a car, and works in a hip young ad agency downtown with an in-office bar on the top floor. Wine is consumed regularly after work with colleagues, and trust me when I tell you they aren’t drinking Haut-Brion. Every week they try new, inexpensive but drinkable wines that they can afford. They share their findings and opinions with one another. And yes, they post on all those social media sites and share with ever greater circles of friends. While they may occasionally spend $200 on wine, it’s for a CASE, not a bottle. Many join wine clubs…. like Ram’s Gate, or Jacuzzi, which appeal to Millennials and have approachable price points. They aren’t joining the Bordeaux-of-the-month club. According to my daughter, she does pay attention to scores, but only while at places like BevMo when choosing among several cheap wines. She says “it helps to see that some reviewer gave the wine a good score,” but admits that the descriptive text is more important to her than the scores.

Many wine sellers have caught on to these younger drinkers and are attempting to earn their business. A fascinating business in San Francisco called “” offers up daily specials via email to subscribers who work in the city. The email may go out at 1pm and offer the first 30 or 50 respondents the opportunity to purchase (for example) a bottle of spaghetti-worthy red wine along with a bag of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce, for $30, delivered to your office before 5pm. Okay, that’s different… and it works. The pairings change all the time, and include late-night deliveries in the city on some nights to your home “in case you have run out of wine.” Wineries sign up with the company to participate in these packages, and provide wines at a discount, but at least the numbers are finite. Customers can buy more bottles if they liked it, at higher prices, but you also know they will be sharing the experience with their friends online. This is a great way for a winery to take a lower-priced SKU and offer it to these new buyers in hopes of building some brand loyalty. It’s definitely worth looking into.

The way I see it, the wine market will always be fractured in different segments, and those segments will utilize different forms of information gathering. Today’s Millennials will become tomorrow’s mainstream market, and another generation will slide into their spot at the bottom of the market totem pole. There will always be different forms of marketing used to reach the defined segments. In other words, anyone who says “scores are dead” or makes any other such de facto statements is wrong. Savvy vintners will employ multiple strategies and tactics to reach their audiences, or they will watch other folks pass them by.

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My award-winning limerick from Wine Writers Symposium

During the Professional Wine Writers Symposium this week, we were challenged to write a poem about Tuesday night’s after-party, featuring some noted 2002 Napa Cabernets. The following limerick, written in about five minutes just prior to the deadline, was awarded second prize at the gala dinner last night. Since I was asked to produce a copy of it, I am attaching it here:

A wine writer, knowing my sentiment                                                                                        offered a decade-old Cab, quite pre-eminent.                                                                          “Pour me a glass, my friend!                                                                                                  And we’ll drink to the end                                                                                                          of the bottle, or ’til we hit sediment.”

Thank you, thankyouverymuch.

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The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

symposiumIt seems somewhat ironic that, while I am retired, this could turn out to be the most significant week of my entire career.

I have the good fortune this week to be attending the ninth annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena. With a grand total of three published news stories (all in January, but several queued up for the coming weeks) behind me, I am thrilled to be able to participate in this exclusive gathering of writers and “faculty.” The funny thing is, when I applied to the Symposium last November I was declined, because while my blog was considered good, I had not been published in mainstream media. I was politely encouraged to spend the next year getting 3-4 pieces published and then I could register in 2014.

Well, that was just not acceptable to me!

So I immediately reached out to the Napa Valley Register and asked if they needed someone to write wine feature stories, and the editor replied with a resounding yes. My writing commenced in December, with my first story appearing January 4th. But even before that first story appeared, I re-applied to the Symposium in December and explained my course of action. The Director called the newspaper to verify my claim, and replied back to me congratulating me on my tenacity, and approving my attendance.

And now the week is here. The Symposium runs from Tuesday through Friday. I am equally excited and intimidated.

Only 50 writers may attend, and the agenda is packed. Some sessions are in listen-only mode, some involve wine tasting (one of my specialties), but most of the sessions are hands-on (meaning we will be interviewing, writing, and/or critiqued) or individually focused. For example, I get to have two 1:1 sessions with faculty members that I pre-selected. One will be with Gary Walther, a regular luxury lifestyle columnist for and contributing editor at ForbesLife magazine. He has a big hotel/travel writing background. My second 1:1 is with James Conaway, author of the two “bibles” of Napa history: “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” and its sequel “The Far Side of Eden.” He is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Other faculty members include a number of other decorated editors and authors, including Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle food and wine section.

Wine writers do not earn much money for their work. Very little, in fact. But vintners rely on the writers to provide coverage of their wines and wineries. So, the Symposium is subsidized by a number of vintners, who provide scholarships for writers who need them, as well as amazing wines for us to taste and learn about. I did not ask for a scholarship. Still, I know the vintners are helping to keep the costs amazingly low for a program of this caliber.

An added bonus (and one that makes the week completely ridiculous for those of us in attendance) is that the big Premiere Napa Valley wine auction takes place this week, and we, as members of the media, get to cover it. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people in the wine trade (resellers, not consumers) are in Napa this week to participate in the auction, which takes place Saturday. At this auction, 200 vintners auction offer 5-, 10- or 20-case lots of specially blended wine, with all the proceeds going to the Napa Valley Vintners. The NVV is the organization that promotes Napa Valley wine around the world and supports all its vintner members. This auction provides most of NVV’s annual operating budget.

(The better-known Napa Valley Wine Auction takes place in June, is open to consumers ((if you can afford the $2500 ticket)), and benefits numerous local charities.)

Prior to Saturday’s grand barrel tasting and auction, there will be countless meetings, luncheons, private tastings and gala parties during the week for the buyers who are in town. As members of the press, we get to attend a lot of them–to the best of our ability, given our Symposium commitments.

My goals for the week are to learn as much as I can, make as many connections as I can to people who can help me further this writing career, and stay as sober as possible.

At some point I will summarize the experience here, but it may take a while to decompress first. Stay tuned for more info. Meanwhile, I may be in over my head, but it sure as hell will be an interesting week!

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Third story in four weeks. Does this make me a veteran?

photo[1]I was very happy to find out yesterday afternoon that my latest story would be running in today’s Napa Valley Register. When I write my own stories, the editor just holds them until a week when the Friday wine section has room, or the story becomes timely, or someone else fails to come through with a story. So, I never know exactly when they will run until they do.

I must say, though, it’s a small thrill when it does go online on Thursday night, and a bigger one when I see the actual ink on paper Friday morning.

Yes, ink on paper. A revolutionary concept.

Please take a look at my latest story (you can see the entire piece and the photo, which I also took) here, and let me know what you think. I have three more interesting pieces in the works! Thanks for all your words of encouragement and support; they more than make up for the meager paycheck!

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