Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Secrets to Scoring an "Insider" Wine Tasting

It's February and that means it's time to head up to Napa Valley one rainy weekend day to admire the wild mustard growing in the vineyards and taste the new releases of Heitz Cellars, among other indulgences.

It also means we get to test out our secret ploy for scoring that bonus tasting, the bottle the "flight attendants" or "hospitality specialists" keep under the bar for selected visitors. Call me shallow, but I get an extra special tingle of pleasure when the guy we've been chatting with says, "oh, wait, there's something else I'd like you to try."

Now, they could choose their lucky customer for a reason as simple as a four-figure purchase of a case or two on the credit card--but usually our purchase is a fairly modest single bottle, albeit from the top of the line. After years of Februarys, I think I know the one secret tip to scoring the extra goodies. You spit when you taste. And ask questions--they don't have to be too esoteric, but they can't be something like "what's a Cabernet?" Just ask how this vintage compares to last year's. Or mention you had a ten-year-old bottle of their flagship wine the night before (especially if you did, which we actually did). But seriously, just acting a bit more thoughtful than the usual tourist will earn you that little treat, which keeps us coming back year after year. Hmm, maybe the secret ploy is at work on both sides of the counter?

Anyway, we enjoyed our stop at Heitz as always. All three new 2004 Cabs were velvety and rich, and we got to taste a 2000 Bella Oaks as the extra. Next on our annual pilgrimage was Merryvale, right up the road and across from Taylor's Refresher, the most upscale, gourmet burger joint on earth. (My kids love the milkshakes which use about a quart of Bud's ice cream).

Merryvale is especially enchanting to me because of their Cask Room, pictured above. My fantasy is to rent this room for an "in the flesh" party with all of my blogger buddies. Tuxes and sparkling evening gowns, catering by Thomas Keller. With this bunch of foodie sybarites, I know we'll have a great time. Well, maybe when I win the lottery, in the meantime, I just read you can enjoy a wine and food pairing seminar for $20 on the fourth weekend of each month. We might have to make another trip up this year!

Merryvale is the place where we really get the goodies--this time two additional vintages of their flagship Profile than is listed on the tasting menu. Of course, we have been collecting one bottle each year for about ten years, but they still know how to make a local girl feel special.

Our final stop is a relatively new discovery in Napa, Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Tucked away on the less busy Silverado Trail, Sinskey offers a food-and-wine pairing for each visitor as part of their $20 tasting. I guess this makes me an old-timer, but I remember when most of the wineries didn't charge for tastings. Sinskey makes it easier with their well-chosen flight of four hors d'oeuvres to complement the wines.

There is something so festive about nibbling a tiny quiche of caramelized onion and chard while you sip their Pinot, or a miniature gougere with the Cab. We also had a bit of drama when one of the servers dropped a whole tray of the special rectangular serving plates back in the kitchen. Lots of shattered china, but, hey, we've all been there.

We decided to pick up two bottles of Sinskey's POV this time, a fittingly literary wine which tasted just as good on Friday as it did up at the winery last weekend.

You know, I think we may have to go back up to Napa soon!


Erobintica said...

What a pleasant surprise of a posting to read this morning! Last night hubby and I watched Bottle Shock and it made us so nostalgic. Great movie by the way and how can you go wrong with Alan Rickman?

For our 5th anniversary (long long time ago) we left our 2 year old with my parents and spent a weekend in the Napa Valley - staying at a fancy B&B, having a wonderful french dinner, stopping at wineries, tasting, and stocking our "cellar" (read kitchen cabinet away from the washer and dryer hahaha). I can't remember the winery (think it's now defunct or swallowed up), but we'd had some great wine with dinner and the next day went to the winery - a little tiny place - but they were closed. But then one of the folks came out to their car getting ready to go to some event and when we told them about the wine we'd loved, they sold us 2 bottles right there in the driveway.

I do miss the California landscape. I also miss the knowledge of wine that comes from just being around it - it's so silly not to be able to buy wine in the grocery store (insert grumble about blue laws here).

Thanks Donna - I will keep an eye out for these - I trust your judgement. ;-)

Neve Black said...

Oh, Donna, I'm in heaven right now. I love wine country.

I briefly dated someone a few summers ago that turned me onto Robert Sinskey's wines. Yum.

Donna said...

Well, I'm not surprised you guys are wine lovers. I think it goes with the sensualist territory!

Robin, that sounds like a fabulous vacation, complete with the personal touch of the sale in the driveway! And yes, we're lucky being able to buy wine in the grocery store. Even Safeway is a pretty good wine store!

Neve, I hope your former paramour turned you on to plenty of other good things, too, but Sinskey is just very reliably yummy stuff. And not too ridiculously expensive.

Stags Leap charges $40 for a TASTING of three of their wines. Don't ask about the bottle shock price.

Erobintica said...

We once had a dinner (gee, it was another anniversary dinner - oh about 4 years ago) and we had a gift certificate to a nice bistro and we splurged on one of those tiny little bottles of Stags Leap. It was very good - yup - very. But haven't had any since - hahaha.

EllaRegina said...

That barrel room looks divine! Your idea of renting it for a bloggers' evening sounds great. Let's all play the lottery and broaden our chances of making that happen, OK?