A Lyonnaise friend took me for some wine tasting and purchasing to northern Beaujolais, first to Fleurie to visit the Co-op there and then to Romanèche-Thorins to visit the Georges DeBoeuf négociant wine cave. We drove north from Lyon on a beautiful sunny afternoon and through some beautiful Beaujolais countryside after getting of the A6 Motorway at Villefranche-sur-Saône.
A French Wine Cooperative (LINK)“produces and sells wine made from the grapes grown by its members. It mutualizes such tasks as winemaking, storage, selling, and, in some cases, the bottling process.” It is a community of vignerons coming together for mutual support. So, you won’t find single-vineyard production, it is more of a collective effort to produce wines under the name of the appellation where the cooperative is located.
A French wine négociant (LINK) is “a merchant who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, then bottle and sell them on the market wholesale.”
In general, you’ll encounter three types of wine négociants (LINK): those who buy pre-made wine and bottle it, those who make some improvements on the wine before bottling it, and those who take whole grapes or unfermented juice to make the wine virtually from scratch. This last type of négociant is called a “négociant-éleveur,” and they are the négociants with the most prestigious reputations.
Like all Beaujolais wines, the Fleurie reds are made from Gamay (they also produce a tiny bit of Pino Noir), the whites from Chardonnay. The famous Noveau Beaujolais, a soda-pop like wine bottled just after fermentation will be released in early November. I would have avoided it even if it had been available. It can be a fun way to celebrate the recent harvest, but it isn’t good wine.
The cooperative offers about 20 wines for sale, including a rosé made from Gamay and three créments (sparkling wines).
I tasted several whites and reds before purchasing a few bottles to take home to Lyon. The wines are well-crafted, not premier crus, but very good, drinkable wines. Most cost under 10 euros per bottle. The cooperative offers a couple of “Burgundian” wines, as parts of the area are on the southern side of Burgundy.
Then we drove a few kilometers west to the village of Romanèche-Thorins to visit the Georges DeBoeuf négociant wine cave (LINK). This is a huge operation, and many of my American friends will be very familiar with Georges DeBoeuf wines.
As a négociant, DeBoeuf operates across all three types listed above. Labels will indicate what the relationship between the négociant and winemaker are for each bottle.
The cave is expansive, featuring the DeBoeuf wines as well as a selection of other premium world wines (even a couple from the US – I won’t name them, but they were not premium wines. One seldom finds really good US wines in France), and a large area of gift items, wine accessories, glasses, etc.
The tasting room is an old-time bar connected to a large area where food is served and there are entertainments (a calliope) for those who have just exited the adjacent wine museum and Hameau park (LINK) (which we did not visit this time). It was a quiet afternoon, so we got some personal attention. You can taste as many wines as you want, and the tasting is complimentary. I was interested in comparing wines made from the fermentation through bottling and wines only bottled by DeBoeuf. The Brouilly samples were representative of this. In this case, I found the wine processed by the vigneron superior to the DeBoeuf-made Brouilly (reds); DeBoeuf sells both for just about the same price.
I purchased a few bottles of the Brouilly I preferred, plus a few others to take home, including a very special Cahors Malbec from their premium wine room. I passed on the Château Haute Lafitte-Rothchild this trip. By the way, the premium wine room has an excellent selection from all over France and the world at very good prices.
If you are in the area, for a day trip or longer – southwest of Mâcon and northwest of Lyon, Beaujolais offers beautiful countryside, picturesque villages, good restaurants, and wine at very reasonable prices. At home, check your local wine shops for Beaujolais wines – see what they recommend. Despite the reputation of Nouveau Beaujolais, there are some very nice wines coming from the area at very reasonable prices.
REFUSE TO BE INTIMIDATED. The world of wine is populated with a few, well, snobs. There are people whose income depends on you, the consumer, feeling like you don’t know enough to order a wine you will like. There are some whose income depends on getting you to buy a wine whether you like it or not. There are also few who want to make you feel uncomfortable just for their own ego gratification.
That said, there are also lots of folks who can and will help you feel more comfortable. These can include wine stewards or waiters in restaurants, employees in wine shops and at large retailers like Costco, tasting room employees, and, yes, wine bloggers like me. Take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help. Even with the first group, you will usually find if you ask a couple of clear questions and let them know what you like and what you are willing to pay, you will get what you desire.
2. BE AN EXPLORER. Try some unfamiliar wines. Even if after doing so, you become a drinker of one kind of wine, you will at least know that you aren’t missing something better for you. Again, wine retailers and restaurant employees can be helpful. Like Malbec? Try something close, like a Barbera or a Tempranillo. Traveling? Try the local wines. (LINK to my post WHAT KIND OF WINE DRINKER ARE YOU?)
3. AVOID REALLY CHEAP WINES. The issue here is not so much about price or quality as it is about additives. Most new world (that’s everyplace but Europe) wines under $10 to $15 are laced with additives of various kinds. There are no labeling requirements, so you don’t know which ones or how much of them are in your wine. Some additives are benign, some are not. Many people who eat only organic food buy cheap wines filled with chemical additives – unknowingly, of course. (LINK to my post on ADDITIVES)
There are three main reasons that cheaper wines have more additives than more expensive wines: One, consumers of cheaper wines tend to want their wine to taste the same every time. They are not interested in seasonal variation – the kind based on weather which affect wine grapes from just about everywhere. So, additives can mask changes – and in cheap wines, the issue is not seasonal variations; most are bulk wines, made from whatever grapes or juice are available at that moment from any location. Second – additives can make a rough product taste smoother, smell better, look better. In other words, mask problems. Third – there are economic reasons to use additives in some products, and your health is not one of them.
4. NEW TO WINE? TRY A STARTER CASE. I blogged about this a while back. If you are new to wine or have someone, like in my case, my daughter, who is new to wine, consider a starter case. This is a mixed case of wines for them to try to learn about. Then, when returning to the wine retailer, you or they can say what you liked and would like to get more of, or maybe explore a bit with something like what you enjoyed previously, but different. (LINK to my post on STARTER CASE)
5. LEARN HOW TO SHOP FOR WINE. I often go into wine shops without intending to make a purchase – just to look around, familiarize myself with the kinds of wines available, the labels, the price points. I may engage someone in the shop in a conversation about a specific wine, or a wine region that they feature. And, truth be told, much more often than not, I walk out with a bottle or three.
Many reputable wine writers and bloggers will tell you to ask questions when shopping for wine. Wine shop employees will generally enjoy helping you (with the possible exception of the Holiday rush). For example, you might ask for a wine in the $20 range to go with a lamb roast, or something to take as a special gift to a lover of Argentinian Malbec. (LINK to my post on SHOPPING FOR WINE)
6. LEARN HOW RESTAURANT WINE WORKS. There are a few things to be aware of when ordering wine in a restaurant. One is the pricing structure. The norm is to mark up a bottle two to two-and-a-half times retail cost. Many restaurants are offering wines at a lower mark-up (in Europe it is often the same as in a wine shop). Wine is a significant part of the profit structure at many restaurants. For others, it is an afterthought; the wines may not even go with the food offered.
There are myths about ordering wine in restaurants. Most are false or only partly true. The reality is that if wine is a serious consideration in a restaurant, the wine list will have been chosen with care based on what is important to that restaurant’s management. It might be by region – focusing on Italian wines in an Italian restaurant; or by type of food served – an emphasis on white and rosé wines in a seafood restaurant; or it may be wines selected for the specific items on the menu. Some say that the best buy is the 2nd cheapest wine on the list. This is almost never true. If it is good value you are seeking, a good choice is to order a bottle of one of the wines they are selling by the glass. These wines are usually a good value and they are sold by the glass because they are well-received.
Again, don’t be afraid to ask the waiter, wine steward, or sommelier for guidance – and DON’T forget to give him or her your budget! I have never had a negative experience with wine in a restaurant when I have been given guidance (I don’t always ask for it). (LINK to my post on ORDERING WINE IN A RESTAURANT)
7. REMEMBER CORKAGE. In many places, you can bring your own wine to a restaurant. Normally, a corkage fee will be charged, to cover the cost of using the glasses and having the wine open and served by the restaurant staff. This is a good option if you have a special bottle to share with family or friends that will go well with the restaurant meal. Some etiquette – if you don’t know, check in advance on the corkage policy of the restaurant; don’t bring a wine the restaurant has on its wine list; don’t pay $20 corkage on an $8 bottle of Yellow Tail to save money. And, if the wine is corked or otherwise bad, don’t try to send it back for another bottle! (LINK to my post about corkage)
8. LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO DRINK BAD WINE. I know you have a budget, which, like mine, is limited. And maybe you don’t have an educated palate to justify really expensive wine. However, as I noted above, just about all of the really cheap wines are filled with additives and are bad for you. So, think about how much wine you drink and what it would take to get the average cost per bottle up to $15 or more. At that price point, generally speaking you are drinking wine, not just a mixture of random grapes made in bulk. You will notice qualities like minerality, or terroir – the effect of the soil on the wine. You will begin to tell varietals apart ($7 Cabernet Sauvignon tastes surprisingly like $7 Merlot). And you will be drinking a more healthful beverage.
Also, if you buy a decent bottle and it’s bad (corked or chemical tasting for example), don’t drink it! Pour it down the sink, or if it’s not too bad, save it for cooking. If you get a bad bottle (meaning there is a flaw of some kind) at a restaurant, let the staff know. They should replace it. If they disagree with you, let them know that you may not be an expert, but you find the wine undrinkable. They should replace it with another bottle. If the first one was bad, you will taste the difference in the new bottle. It is bad form to ask for a different wine in this situation. Maybe you will get lucky and that will have been their last bottle of that kind in stock! (LINK to my post on EXPENSIVE WINES)
9. WINE ENJOYMENT IS SUBJECTIVE. No matter what the experts tell you, for 95% of wine consumers – the ones who haven’t trained their palates for years and taken rigorous certification classes – wine enjoyment is subjective. You either like a wine, have a “meh” reaction, or don’t like it at all. Robert Parker can’t tell you if you will like a wine. I try to look at tasting notes only after I have tasted a wine, to see if they got it right for me. There are things to know about specific wines, but, let’s be realistic, most who drink wine will never invest the time and energy to learn more than a few of them.
Wes Hagen, currently of Central California’s J. Wilkes Wines (LINK), shares his way to taste wine for most consumers:
Swirl the wine in the glass and look at the color; put your nose to the glass and sniff the bouquet; if it smells like something you want to put into your mouth, take a sip; if it tastes like something you want to swallow, swallow it; notice the finish.
If you begin from there and add some knowledge as you go, you will never get to a point where Wes’s advice doesn’t hold true.
10. HAVE FUN WITH WINE. Wine is both a beverage and, for some, a lifestyle. I love sharing a good bottle with friends and family, and almost never have an expensive (say over $30) bottle when alone. Dorianne and I used to have wine dinners, where we would ask our guests to bring a special bottle, like the one they’ve been saving for a special occasion for ten years, and a dish to accompany it. At the dinner, each guest will tell the story of their wine as everyone shares it. Or bring a bottle from a trip and share the story of the trip.
Go wine tasting when you travel near wine country – there are hundreds of “wine countries” these days. We have tasted in Mexico, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, England, and in Michigan, Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Texas, to name a few outside of the normal wine destinations. You will meet some great people in the local wine industry, and fellow tasters are often interesting as well.
I am sure that there are other guidelines for enjoying wine. These are my top ten and I hope you find them of value!
I spent the last ten days in Hungary, attending a conference, doing some touring, and tasting quite a few Hungarian wines. As in the past, the experience was uneven – but, like many places, things are looking up. The overall quality of the wines I tasted on this trip indicates a general improvement in the wine making process. As in the past, with the wines of Hungary, whites are a better bet than reds; and rosés are a gamble.
Dorianne and I took one of those touristy wine tasting cruises on the Danube last Friday. Interestingly, the wines we sampled were, overall, the best we had during the entire visit. The cruise was interesting – 90 minutes long and we were alone in wine tasting. We were accompanied by 50 Dutch high schoolers on a trip before graduation (who were not drinking alcohol). The kids were very well-behaved, spoke excellent English, and about a dozen hung with us for conversation and a bit of a lesson in wine.
Benedict was our young tour guide and wine steward, and he had clearly been schooled in the wines we were tasting. Hungary has lots of limestone soils, and grapes are grown all over the country.
As I said, the wines we tasted on the cruise were very good, except the rosé. And Benedict poured us full glasses of each wine! We had to create our own dump bucket using a water glass so we could walk the kilometer or two back to our hotel. Here are the wines:
The first wine, a Tokaji Furmint Grand Selection from the famous Tokaji-Hegyalja region, was dry (most Tokaji wines are sweet): fruit-forward with a soft, rich mouthfeel – reminiscent of an unoaked Chardonnay. We had a number of Furmints on the trip, and all were good. The Bárdos Pinot Grigio had pleasant notes of citrus and would make a great summer wine. The Juház Kékfrankos Rosé had a slight effervescence and herbal notes – I was not a fan of this one.
The selected reds were actually quite good, especially the young Hilltop Premium Merlot, which showed medium tannins, dark fruit, was chewy, and was well-balanced. It should age well over 3-5 years. The Bodri Szekszárdi Civilis Cuvée red blend (Gamay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zweigelt, and Kadarka) had dark fruit flavors, a lighter consistency than the Merlot. It was a bit harsh, but, given time, may even out. Of the two Tokaji sweet wines at the end of the tasting, the Göncöl was rich and balanced; the Megyer was overly sweet for our tastes.
What we expected to be a touristy lark turned out to be a rather serious tasting and a very good experience. If you go, you can’t expect 50 bright, intelligent Dutch teens to be your companions, but you never know . . .
“But now that wine drinking has become so very much more commonplace than it used to be, wine has definitively lost its elitist veneer. For heaven’s sake, it has long been the drink of choice not just for The Archers but on Coronation Street.”
“I would honestly be delighted if every wine drinker felt confident enough to make their own choices dependent on their own individual responses to wines previously tasted. But I do recognise that for many people it will always be simpler to be told what to like.”
I am re-posting and quoting this because the idea of taking responsibility for your own wine drinking decisions, of reading the “experts” but finding your own way and developing your palate in a personal sense – is for me the best way forward in today’s wine world. But as Ms. Robinson says above, there will always be people who want to be told what to drink – but there are now many more people willing to tell them, myself included. So there will always be experts, but few, if any, will rise to the stature achieved by my fellow Baltimorean, Robert M. Parker, Jr. in today’s crowded field of bloggers and other influencers.
On the other hand, there are simply too many wine regions, varietals, producers, and labels for anyone to be a true expert in the generalist sense any more. Those who specialize in a single region or varietal may be exceptions, but even there, it is becoming more difficult (Bordeaux has 8500 producers and counting).
I am heartened by the prospect of a reduction in the influence of the 100 point scale to govern so wide a swath of wine consumption – even if you don’t adhere to it, your favorite restaurant or wine shop likely does. Variety is the spice of life, and making a choice of an unknown wine that you end up not particularly liking can actually increase your ability to judge wines for yourself. The experts of the past had to drink a lot of bad wine to become decent judges of quality. There is still some truth to that idea.
There is a little wine cave near where I live in Lyon called Cave Chromatique (LINK), where the owner takes great care in selecting his wines. When I shop there, I don’t get directed toward a particular style. When I inquire about a wine, I get a description of the wine, thewine producer, the terroir, the process, and maybe the vineyard. I make my purchase and try it. Now, I am an Explorer(LINK to What Kind of Wine Drinker Are You?), so I like to try different wines – and some end up set aside for cooking or even go down the drain. But I also get some amazing experiences with wines that I would not have otherwise tried.
So, I appreciate the post by Jancis Robinson. And I will continue to read her and others who are knowledgeable about wine – but I will be making my own choices including exploring things outside of my own experience recommended by good wine retailers, wine stewards, and friends.
And if you want a treat, there are a number of videos of her wine lessons from 1995 on YouTube.com (LINK) that still stand up well and are very informative and entertaining.
“When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel.”
~ Gloria Steinem
If you read the first post (LINK) in this series, written in September 2017, when we had been in Lyon, France for a bit over two months, you know about the process of securing a long-stay visa and finding an apartment, and a few other things. This post will bring you up to date on the next steps we have taken, and some lessons learned along the way.
Here is where we are as of this writing:
We have purchased an apartment in the 6th Arrondissementof Lyon. Long-term rentals are nearly impossible to find, as landlords usually demand French co-signers for leases (see the first post for more about this). We signed the papers where our offer was accepted, and now are in a 3-month period where notaires, sort of specialized real estate attorneys, do some due diligence on the title, etc. There is an 8% fee for this service, which includes an effective sales tax for the property. We expect to take possession of the apartment in late June or early July. I am now on my way to the US to meet the shipping company representatives who will begin the move of our remaining possessions from California to Lyon.
We had a bit of a scare about shipping Dorianne’s 1923 Steinway piano because of the prohibitions (in the US and the EU) of exporting or importing ivory But we found out that when the piano was rebuilt, plastic keys were installed, so no problem there (just a rather large packing and shipping fee). Also, Dorianne is playing violin is a couple of amateur orchestras in Lyon.
We are in our third short-term furnished rental and about to move into our fourth. By law, short-term rentals in France cannot exceed 90 days unless the residence is declared as the non-primary residence of the owners. And, apparently, AirBnB rentals are limited to 90 days. Plus, French cities are restricting AirBnb operations, cracking down due to many complaints. We found a great rental manager who does both AirBnB and non-AirBnb rentals and have been very happy with rentals in different parts of the city. We have been paying between 1800 and 2500€ per month for nice furnished apartments – one to three bedrooms. It has worked out well for us, but we are glad to be moving to a “home base.”
We are about to renew our long-stay visa, including a change of department (like a state) from Bourgogne (Mâcon) to Rhône-Alpes (Lyon). We go to the local prefecture, police station & department offices, to renew. Our appointment is set for June 28th, and the paperwork is essentially the same as the original visa application (see LINK to prior post). We will still not be able to work in France. Dorianne is considering seeking a self-employment visa but will explore that later. After five years, we will be eligible to apply for permanent residency and/or French citizenship (which takes about 2 years to process currently).
Learning French is coming more slowly that we expected, but we continue to study – Dorianne more diligently than me to be honest. Mais c’est la vie. Also, we have met several expats through org (they have a wine-tasting and hiking group) and other sources, and we are too temped to speak English when with them. We are also traveling out of France quite a bit – something that should be reduced over the next year. Dorianne has a tutor, who offers immersion weeks at her home in Burgundy – that is something we may take advantage of over the summer.
Meanwhile, we are loving the lifestyle inLyon. I have blogged about the everyday wine experience (LINK)here. Every neighborhood has a selection of great restaurants and shops, including wine caves, featuring regional wines. Our current local cave is Cave Chromatique, on Rue de la Charité in the Ainay neighborhood. It has a nice selection of wines and spirits and the owner has carefully selected the wines he sells – some nice wines, including great values from Burgundy and the Rhône Valley.
We go out for lunch or dinner once or twice a week, and there are many wonderful places to eat at all price ranges. The markets offer fresh foods daily, as do the local shops – baguettes, cheese, meats, fish, fruit and vegetables, chocolates & pastries – everything we need. The railroad system is excellent (although on a series of rolling strikes at the moment), and Lyon Airport is convenient and has flights to most of Europe.
I have been bringing wines from my California wine locker back, a few bottles at a time. My French friends love the good American wines – the rare US wines stocked here tend to be, well, mediocre at best (unlike in the UK). I think that is intentional, as the French are very sensitive and proprietary about their wine, and, indeed, we are drinking French wines almost exclusively and loving them.
I think that’s about it for this post. As always, your comments are welcome – I’d love to hear about your expat experience or your questions about moving to France.
Since moving to Lyon, France this past summer (LINK to Post About Moving to France), much of our time has been spent attempting to learn French (definitely a work in progress), finding our way around town (easy as Lyon is a very walkable city with great public transportation), and traveling back and forth to the US (which will become increasingly less frequent).
I will do another post as a sequel to the one about moving to France soon. For now, let’s talk wine.
Lyon is located in the Rhône-Alps Department (there are 100 departments, or states in France), in the upper part of southeastern France. We are just north of the Rhône Valley at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône Rivers. A few kilometers to the north, Burgundy begins with the Mâcon region; to the west, Beaujolais is a few kilometers outside the city; to the east, the underappreciated Jura region is a short drive away. Wines from all these regions and more pour into Lyon, a city of about 500K with 2.2 million in the metropolitan area.
There are only two large supermarkets in the city limits, both at malls. Big box stores are restricted to outlying areas, meaning that mom & pop businesses thrive. Every neighborhood has multiple small boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, green grocers, and wine caves. Small grocery stores have wine departments featuring representative wines from the surrounding regions, mostly from larger producers. The caves (wine shops) have more wines from smaller producers and a few higher-end bottles, but almost all the wines are reasonably priced and would qualify as “everyday wines.” (LINK to @EricAsimov column on Everyday Wines from the NYTimes). We are drinking these wines for the most part with our lunches and dinners at home – spending an average of 10 to 12€ per bottle (top shelf at these stores) – sometimes much less – and enjoying most of them very much. This is why I have not been blogging and Tweeting as much about the wines I am drinking – they are, for the most part, not stand-out wines, but they are good!
My admittedly limited personal research thus far has revealed an interesting fact: THE FRENCH DON’T LIKE TO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY ON WINE.
I don’t know why this surprised me – but I just have not encountered the kind of wine conversations that I had with friends in California. It is more likely to encounter a boxed wine at a dinner party than a higher-end Burgundy or Châteauneuf du Pape. And, by the way, I have had some very drinkable boxed wines here. But I was a bit surprised that the Mecca of fine wine is largely populated with folks who prefer to spend under 10€ a bottle (and 3€ can get you a very nice rosè from Provence). Even when higher-end wines are served at dinner, the conversation is not about the wine. Perhaps a quick recognition of whoever provided it (usually the host), but that’s about it.
Dorianne and I eat at restaurants once or twice a week. Lyon is a gastronomique capital – many of the great Parisian (and New York) chefs train in the many cooking schools here. Lyon has more Michelin Star restaurants per capita than any other city, so food is a big thing here. And this extends downward from the Michelin restaurants all the way to the Bouchons (think bistro but serving Lyonnaise cuisine) and comptoirs. It is difficult to find a bad meal here, and some very nondescript looking places are working magic in their tiny kitchens. And as for wine, once you get out of the Michelin range, the wine lists tend to be fairly modest, featuring value-priced bottles and vins de la maison, usually from a tap or box. The wine list prices are usually at regular retail or just a bit above.
So, my everyday wine experience here in Lyon has been mostly with everyday wines from the wine regions surrounding the city. I will say that French wine producers seem to understand that the French don’t like to pay a lot for wine. The 13€ Burgundy Pinot Noir I get at the local wine cave tastes equivalent to a $30 or $40 bottle of Burgundy purchased in the US. We are enjoying very good wines for very reasonable prices – and feeling very grateful in the process!
I recently spent a couple of days in the Santa Rita Hills (LINK to Prior Posts), located north of the city of Santa Barbara and west of the cities of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County. The unique geography and geology of the Santa Rita Hills AVA (the mountains and valleys run west to east allowing cooling Pacific winds and moisture to come further inland), make this an excellent location for Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is also a decent amount of Syrah grown here, along with a few other varietals in smaller lots.
Over two days, we visited five wineries and stopped at a sixth just to buy some wine. I am going to feature four, Ampelos, Foley, Hilliard-Bruce, and Pence Ranch.
Pence Ranch Vineyard & Winery (LINK): I visited here last year, when they were relatively new as a tasting room operation (LINK). At that time, I was told that their plan was to open the tasting room for regular hours in the future. When we stopped without an appointment, I was told that they were back to the appointment system, but there was availability. Jake, took us via a large golf cart to a part of the property where an outdoor tasting room area had been created. We had a very nice experience tasting the Pence wines, and then got a tour of the vineyard portion of the property. The Pence Ranch is relatively narrow and runs nearly two miles deep off Route 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. The front of the property is where the vineyards and wine tasting rooms are, the back is an equestrian center and a working cattle ranch. The winery is in Lompoc.
At Pence, you taste the Pinot Noirs before the Chardonnays, the former being elegant in style, the latter being more pronounced, if not the traditional butter-bomb California Chardonnay. Their wines are uniformly well-crafted and made to enjoy with food. This year, we also tasted a Gamay wine, which is young and crisp but very complex. I plan to take a bottle back to France to share with my friends used to drinking Beaujolais. So, make an appointment to visit, or order their wines from their website – you are not likely to find Pence Ranch Wines at your retailer.
Foley Estates Vineyard (LINK): Foley has been making great wine in the Santa Rita Hills for decades. Their tasting room is nicely appointed, next to the huge “barrel room” where special events can be held. Like all the SRH wineries with some history, Foley makes very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. They also make a very good Syrah. Their blended Chardonnays, Pinots, and the single vineyard versions of these varietals each have their own characteristics. We particularly liked the 2015 “T-Ranch” Chardonnay and the 2015 “T-Ranch Pinot Noir (there are also 2013 and 2014 Pinots available currently), but all were good. Foley is worth a visit when you are in Santa Barbara County. You can also order wines from their website.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards (LINK): A smaller, boutique producer, Hilliard Bruce Vineyards occupies 101 acres (21 under cultivation) to the west of storied Clos Pepe Vineyard along Route 246. This was my first visit to Hilliard Bruce and you have to be impressed with the beautiful grounds, architecturally striking winery/tasting room building, and the vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The wines do not disappoint. Four 2014 Pinots from their Earth, Sun, Moon, and Sky vineyards, each have nuances that separate them from the others, yet all are clearly in the same family. Spicy, peppery, soft and velvety Pinots will go well with food.
The Chardonnay is also made to go with food, as the bottle we bought to have with our picnic lunch showed. Well-structured, with a hint of buttery mouthfeel, the 2014 Chardonnay is classic Santa Rita Hills in style and should drink well for several years. We did meet John Hilliard during our visit – he was most cordial and, like almost everyone in the wine industry, liked to talk about his wines and his property. Hilliard Bruce is open by appointment; their wines are available via their website.
Ampelos Cellars (LINK): Full disclosure – my wife has known Peter and Rebecca Work for a few decades, having worked with them years ago when they were all with Price-Waterhouse. But Dorianne was not with me on this visit, and Peter and Rebecca, sadly, were not at the tasting room in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto when some friends and I visited recently. I have enjoyed their wines for years.
Ampelos uses biodynamic and organic farming practices (LINK) and produces a range of wines, some of which are atypical for the Santa Rita Hills AVA. These include their Viognier and Grenache (bottled as a single varietal and blended with Syrah for their Syrache red blend). Viognier and Rose of Syrah constitute the lighter end of their offerings; two Pinot Noirs in the mid-range; and Grenache, Syrah, and Syrache at the heavier end. Of course, none of these wines are really big wines like you would find in Napa Valley or Paso Robles these days. Ampelos focuses on balance and elegance, putting them well within the Santa Rita Hills style in this regard. The vineyard is down the 246 a way; the winery is also in Lompoc. Wines are available for order at the website, and you will find them at better wine shops here and there.
I also stopped at Ken Brown Wines in Buellton to buy some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on our way out of the area. Brown is one of the pioneers of the AVA and produces some amazing wines in the Burgundian style. I frequently tell my friends in France about the Santa Rita Hills with their east-west mountains and valleys and their Burgundian style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Now I will have a few to take back and share with them.
Dorianne and I did our annual visit to California’s Central Coast Wine Regions this past week. In this post, I will cover the three wineries we visited in the Paso Robles area (LINK TO PRIOR POSTS ON PASO). In another post, I will cover two days in the Santa Rita Hills/Lompoc area.
As we always do, we joined two other couples at the Kon Tiki Inn in Pismo Beach (LINK), a beautifully preserved gem from the 1960’s (no online reservations). This gives us a based to roam from Paso Robles in the North to the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Ynez in the south. We usually cover three wineries per day, have wine and cheese at the Kon Tiki, then go to dinner in one of Pismo Beach’s good restaurants.
Ancient Peaks (LINK): Our drive up toward Paso Robles led us first to Ancient Peaks Winery Tasting Room in Santa Margarita. Ancient Peaks has the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles Eastern AVA, and the tasting room is just off the 101 Freeway. None of us had been there before; in fact, all three winery visits were firsts for just about all of us (two people had been to Sextant Winery before).
Ancient Peaks has a nicely arranged tasting room with plenty of space and areas to relax with a glass or two of their wines. There is even a café. We arrived just at the 11:00 am opening time. We tasted five wines – all were nicely crafted and well balanced. These are good wines. We tasted five of the ten wines listed for sale on the Ancient Peaks website. Dorianne and I purchased the 2015 White Label Chardonnay, the 2015 Zinfandel, and the 2014 Oyster Ridge Red Blend. I would say that Ancient Peaks represents what we have found in Paso Robles wines for the last three years – consistently well-crafted wines which are true to their fruit and terroirorigins. The staff was professional, friendly, and generally well-informed. One kindly recommended that we visit Clos Solène (and called for the appointment) since we are now living in France – more about them in a bit.
Sextant Winery (LINK): Sextant is located between Templeton and Paso Robles on the west side of the 101 Freeway that divides the area. The vineyards are on rolling hills and the tasting room is elevated on one of these hills. Beautifully appointed, with the nautical theme that runs through all of Sextant’s products, the tasting room and member’s lounge are worth your time to visit. And, happily, the wines (LINK) are very good as well. We were able to taste from their regular and member’s tasting lists during our visit.
The wines are nicely balanced, made to go with food, and easy to drink. I did not have a negative comment about any of them. Of particular note was the 2015 Kamal Cabernet Sauvignon, a beautifully crafted wine with notes of dark fruit, green pepper, and a rich minerality. Definitely a hit. Sextant is worth a visit if you are in Paso Robles, and you can order their wines online.
Clos Solène Winery (LINK): A gem of a small winery, Clos Solène is also on Paso Robles’ West Side, nestled among low hills. Guillaume and Solène Fabre (LINK) are a French couple who grow grapes and make wine here – in the French style. Guillaume stopped by during our tasting for a chat. Production is under 2000 cases total, so these are all limited production (and expensive) wines. We tasted on the outdoor patio (a rare rainfall had just stopped) from their tasting menu (LINK).
The entire list consists of excellent wines. Of particular note is the 2016 Homage Blanc blend of 75%Roussanne and 25% Viognier; the 2015 Harmonie red blend of 56%Grenache, 30% Mouvedre, and 14% Syrah; and the 2015 Homage a nos Pairs red blend of 95%Syrah, 3% Grenache, and 2%Viognier. As the French would say, these wines are Tres Cher (very costly), but they are beautiful wines – as good as anything I have tasted in Paso Robles. Clos Solène Winery is open by appointment.
Paso Robles never fails to please those in search of new and unique wine experiences – and, increasingly, those in search of excellent wines!
This has been a very unique year for me in terms of wine exploration and enjoyment. After traveling full time between North America and Europe for 2 ½ years, Dorianne and I have settled in Lyon, France. Although we continue to travel for various reasons (I’m writing this in Southern California), we have been exploring the local wine scene in and around Lyon since July – and have discovered that there is a lot to learn, and even more to enjoy.
The year began with our annual few days in Pismo Beach, CA with our friends to explore wineries from Paso Robles, the Edna Valley, Santa Maria, and the Santa Rita Hills AVAs. The highlights of that trip were Sculptera Vineyards in Paso Robles (we all joined the wine club and bought two cases), Presqu’ile Vineyards in Santa Maria, and Pence Winery in the Santa Rita Hills. (LINK to Post about the last two)
The cases from Sculptera (mixed cases) were sent to Roam Miami (LINK), where Dorianne and I stayed last winter. A co-living/co-working space, Roam offered a haven of tropical peace and calm right next to downtown Miami and the Brickell area. We were surrounded mostly by Millennial digital nomads, and we conducted a few wine tastings and seminars to help educate them about wine enjoyment. (LINK to Post about Millennials and Wine).
In late March, we headed back to southern Oregon, Medford and Ashland, to see friends and explore more of the Rogue Valley wine scene. A month there took us to several wonderful wineries (LINK to Post) and some great restaurants.
The next highlight was two weeks in New York, staying in my daughter’s Harlem apartment, where we got to explore the burgeoning Harlem French wine and restaurant scene (LINK to Post about Harlem). Lots of good experiences there.
In June I traveled solo to Kelowna, British Columbia, the heart of the rich Okanagan Wine Region in western Canada(Link to Post about the Okanagan). Here I explored a variety of wineries and wines, as global warming has opened the region to growing red grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignon, to Tempranillo, to Syrah. Kelowna is a boomtown for vacation homes and recreation on its 90-mile-long glacial lake. The wine scene is growing more sophisticated with over 200 wineries in the area. Dirty Laundry Winery showcases much of what is fun in the Okanagan (LINK to Post).
Lyon has been a revelation in terms of wine. Centered between Burgundy to the north, the Rhône Valley to the south, Beaujolais to the west, and Jura to the east, there is an embarrassment of riches. And some surprises.
The French don’t like to spend a lot of money on wine. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but you rarely see a bottle above 20€ in a grocery store or over 40€ in the local wine cave (shop). Restaurants generally sell wine bottles at or just above retail. And winemakers sell wines for half to 2/3’s what they would cost in the US. A “pot” is a 460ML bottle – a bit more than a half-bottle – of house wine which will cost 8 to 12€ in a Bouchon (Lyonnaise for bistro). There are also demi-pots and rare 500ML bottles.
Box wines are better quality than I expected. For about 25€ you can get a 5-liter box of a very drinkable Luberon Valley red wine; 18€ for the rosé.
Rosé wines are very good at 4€ per bottle, excellent at 7 to 10€. We drank rosés almost exclusively during the hot summer months.
Maconnais Chardonnays are wonderful wines. Just north of Lyon, the vineyards of Macon produce some wonderfully approachable wines which sell for ½ or 1/3 of what their Burgundian cousins to the north fetch. Another nice surprise was Aligoté, the other Burgundy white – crisp, with a mineral/floral nose, it is a great value choice from the same winemakers who make the expensive stuff.
In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is just Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc is just Sauvignon. Cases in France are 6 bottles. Just FYI.
As I noted in the Moving to France Post (LINK), we tend to shop every day for fresh items at the open-air marchés and the mom-and-pop bakeries, butchers, etc. This may also include a stop at the wine cave to pick up a bottle or two and have a conversation with the proprietor about what is new and interesting.
We have not yet begun to explore the wineries and vineyards in the area – our focus has been on learning French, getting to know the city, and finding a flat to purchase – however, we expect to do a lot of that in 2018.
We are winding up 2017 in Southern California with friends and family. Our New Year’s Eve dinner with friends will feature a cold lobster appetizer that I am making and a Ken Brown Chardonnay to accompany it; then roast leg of lamb with a 2005 Opus One and a 1994 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to see the year out with something wonderful.
Next week, we return to Pismo Beach to explore the Central Coast some more, then . . .
Thanks for being a part of this year on the blog.
As always, your comments and suggestions are welcomed!