Commercial Wine Tastings
“We don’t charge winemakers for tastings.” I’ll admit I had heard that sentence before in the Finger Lakes of New York, but here the speaker was at Preston Vineyards in Sonoma County, California. Along with another couple, my wife and I were cruising around the Dry Creek area and tasting some big California wines.
Isabelle and I with friends at Von Strasser Winery in Napa.
The standing rule seems to be a business card with your contact information identifying you as a winemaker will sometimes get you a free tasting, a discount, or a behind-the scenes tour of a winery and/or vineyard.
Many times we have been offered free tastings (the money for the tasting gets added to the tip) but the real magic is the conversations with the staff. We hear about the state the last winter left the vineyards, strategies for dealing with deer and birds, and how to survive when the tour buses pull up to discharge.
Since we often travel in the off-season for vineyards and tasting rooms, primarily January, winemakers and owners seem to have time with the pressure off to handle our questions about yeast, temperature maintenance, and grape handling. A future post will talk about a trip to Italy that included a week in the Chianti Classico region and wall-to-wall tastings, tours, and meetings with winemakers.
Now most of my winemaking is confined to the secret recesses of our basement but we have also acted as associates at Amorici Vineyards near Saratoga Springs, New York. We have been involved with all the processes with harvesting the clear favorite. Since I have planted several dozen vines, technically I’ve been a grape grower, but that’s pushing it. Nonetheless my wife and I have associate winemaker business cards and I have cards as a “consulting winemaker.” In that role, we help our friends and neighbors out with their harvest and odd chores and are usually compensated by lunch. It’s a good deal. Every now and then I offer an opinion to keep my “consulting” credential good. Ha.
This past January, we took advantage of a break in classes to visit friends in San Jose, California. That traditionally is our base of operations for the earlier trip to Sonoma and subsequent trips to Napa and Paso Robles. This winter we took a detour to visit a vineyard that produces grapes that we have bought in the autumn through a regional distributor. If you don’t deal with a single vineyard, there can be no certainty where the grapes are from and no idea that they will be consistent with the last batch. The grape distributor that I use is M&M Wine Grape Company in Hartford Connecticut.
It’s about 120 miles from home but their prices are good and autumn brings the bustle of dozens of home winemakers from throughout New York and New England. They also display some beautiful copper stills – as if I need more temptation. More importantly, they have a partnership with Lanza Vineyards in the Suisun Valley of California.
We had met Ron Lanza years ago at a winemaker’s awards dinner sponsored by the distributor and Amenti Del Vino. Ron and his family operate the vineyard which largely grows grapes for the home winemaker and supplies the grapes for their Wooden Valley Winery in the Suisun Valley near Fairfield, CA. Ron showed us the vineyards that supply grapes to not only home winemakers but some of the top commercial brands in the industry. We got a tour of the winery, many barrel samples, some bottles to take back to our hotel and Ron took the time to take us to lunch. Royalty, that’s us. We are now Lanza and Suisun Valley fans.
When you buy wine from the tasting room after hearing about the challenges and triumphs involved in making it, you’ll appreciate it far more than the average taster. My suggestion is to go off season after calling ahead.
Although distributors are interested in quality fruit, they can’t with assurance always tell you where the grapes were grown except in a general area. An alternative is, of course, to pick them yourself.