I first visited wine country in October of 2005. My family and I had moved to Southern California a year earlier and going to Napa seemed like a very West Coast thing to do. This was a short trip that my husband and I took with another couple. The four of us spent time enjoying our digs at Auberge du Soleil, touring wineries via bicycle and dining at restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
I think we spent two nights in Napa, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the details. Wine country has a way of erasing details. The highlight of that visit, beside bonding with another couple from our new hometown, was the bike tour. But that was because: drinking wine — while riding a bike — in a group of people! The tour guide wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about wine, or if he was, I don’t remember him sharing that knowledge. And the wineries we visited were for the most part not memorable. In a nutshell, my inaugural Napa vista was mostly about drinking wine and having fun. I left loving Stag’s Leap Winery cabernets, but knowing nothing about the reason why.
It took 10 years, but this past December I finally returned to Napa. And this time the visit, which I shared with my immediate family, in addition to being about drinking wine and having fun — was all about education.
Here’s a bit of what we learned while touring wineries:
- When it comes to certain wine-related topics (the virtue of viscosity comes to mind), opinions vary.
- When it comes to using descriptive language to illustrate the smell, taste or finish of a wine — anything goes. Is the finish like sandpaper? Do you like wines that “rip your face off”? Do you smell grass? Say it!
Which brings me to:
- According to the wine experts we met, what you smell, what you taste, what you like — it is all just fine. They say that there is no right answer (I feel like there probably is) and that there are no stupid questions.
- You can swirl your wine glass too much.
- You can kill the smell of your wine, if you swirl your wine glass before smelling it.
- You shouldn’t say that you don’t like a specific varietal. According to the folks we spoke with, that would be like saying you don’t like pizza, when it reality, you don’t like Pizza Hut pizza. You might LOVE New York pizza or pizza that was prepared to your tastes, if given the opportunity to taste it. (If you don’t like pizza, I am okay with that. I am also okay if you don’t like specific varietals.) (I am just the messenger.)
- Take a sip (or six) of wine before you take a bite of your food. Wine-coated tastebuds neutralize the sugar in your saliva, which makes the taste of the food come through.
- The soil in which the grape is grown is the secret sauce. And the consistency and composition of Napa soil can vary greatly. That’s why some Napa wines will rip your face off while others are shy. (I am going to be sure to describe a wine as being “shy” the next time I go.) Somehow, I missed this lesson completely the first time we visited the region. But I left this time understanding that I am more of a Rutherford gal than anything else.
I also learned:
- Visiting Napa in the winter, in the slow season, is great! We were the only guests in our Winemaker for a Day program and we were able to get reservations at some very good restaurants . Additionally, when taking vineyard tours/going on tastings, the groups in late December were small. This was especially nice because it meant we were able to ask a lot of questions.
- While touring a vineyard (if you have paid for a tasting), you can usually order wine at the wine club price without actually joining the club. And if you do join the club, you can drop out before any additional wine is sent.
- Staying in Yountville, during the off-season, is smart. It is probably also smart to stay there during the peak season. But you will pay more.
Three full days of wine tasting and vineyard touring was about my limit, but I am glad that I live a short plane ride away. I’ll be back, Napa. And in the meantime, I’ll slowly work my way through the bottles of wonderful wine that we bought while there.