A Cautionary Tale

Through my winery excursions, I seek to explore the different ways in which positive winery experiences are evoked.  An extra pour, a particular engaging or knowledgeable person pouring, a free loaf of bread.  But I also have had, fortunately not too often, a negative winery experience, and I was really struck by the impact of that experience on the wine itself.  This is not really surprising since the context in which we sample wine does influence the wine’s taste.

My significant other and I were tasting in a wine area of New York when we came upon a winery at which the person pouring the wine appeared overwhelmed.  She remarked many times on how busy the tasting room was (although there were only about six people) and frequently lost track of what she was pouring for whom.  It was clear she wanted to do a good job but her struggle led to anxiety that was actually palpable to others.  We just wanted to finish our tasting and leave so she could have two less people to deal with.  

We later learned this was a winery well known for high quality wine. Interestingly, however, neither my significant other nor I could recall anything about the wine itself.  We remembered the experience (as strong emotions do often get recalled quite clearly) but I was struck by the fact that we couldn’t conjure up any thoughts we had when we tasted the wine. 

Just as a positive winery experience can enhance the customer’s likelihood to make a purchase and potentially enhance the taste of the wine itself, a negative winery experience can detract from the taste of even high quality wine.

Working Dog Winery – Robbinsville, NJ

Now that it is Spring and the weather is actually warming up in NJ, it is time to head outside.  I like to appreciate the end of a cold winter by soaking up the sun at a local winery.  Working Dog Winery (formerly Silver Decoy) is a great place to do just that.  They have a covered patio, an open patio, and a vast field of grass leading up to the vineyard.  Even if the place is crowded, which it often is if the weather is nice – a great outdoor space is a fabulous way to attract crowds – there is ample room for everyone, people and dogs (they are a very dog-friendly establishment).   You just might need to bring your own blanket or chair to sit on – there are not always enough of their brightly-colored Adirondack chairs to go around.

My significant other and I walked into the Working Dog winery building for a tasting.  They make dry whites and reds, a rose (which I was told will be released in May), and sweeter wines.  We were walked through the tasting by a friendly and knowledgeable staff member, who has worked there for three years.  She is an executive assistant at her (week)day job and works at the winery on the weekends.  She provided the winery’s background story…

We learned the winery was originally owned by a group of eight friends (now five) of varying professions, including a teacher, a carpenter, and an owner of liquor stores who was the wine buyer.  That latter friend became the winemaker and what was a hobby among these friends has turned into a business. We were told there is a female assistant winemaker who travels for part of each year to places such as France and Washington to further her winemaking studies.  She is currently in New Zealand.

Although I am typically more of a red wine drinker, I often go for a white when it is hot out so on this day at Working Dog I grabbed a glass of white and headed outside.  The sun was beaming in the bright blue sky.  I pulled over one of those Adirondack chairs to face the vineyards, sat down with my wine in hand, and basked in the heat.  A toast to the end of the cold weather (at least for now) and a warm experience at Working Dog Winery!

Tarpon Springs Castle Winery – Tarpon Springs, FL

I like to discover wineries in unexpected places… Florida is a good example.  I have some family in Florida and they didn’t even realize there were wineries.  Most Florida wineries import the grapes since the hot climate isn’t conducive to many varieties (although the Muscadine grape seems to handle the heat) and some make wine out of other Florida-grown fruits.  The winemaker at Tarpon Springs Castle Winery brings his Italian winemaking heritage to Florida.  

I was first struck by the appearance of the winery’s exterior, which looks like a traditional southern homestead.  Apparently the couple who owns the winery specifically constructed it to resemble an 1820 federal building through consultation with various historical societies.  I later learned their home is upstairs. It is certainly one of the most unique looking winery buildings I have visited.

My significant other and I were unfortunately short on time this day, as I was trying to squeeze in a winery visit before we had an appointment in nearby Clearwater (he was looking at yet another used boat – see the Maryland post).  When we walked in, we were instantly greeted warmly by the owner and winemaker, Joseph Marks.  He led us to the small table-for-two where he would conduct our tasting.  He called over to a woman conducting a larger group’s tasting to ask a question and his tone indicated to me that they were a couple (you know that tone – slightly exasperated in the most loving way).  She is, in fact, his wife and winery co-owner, Diana Marks.

There are apparently several Groupon packages that can be used at the winery but we just did a standard tasting, which includes samples of four wines, a glass of wine, and the glass itself.  In all my years of tastings at many wineries, I have never had a glass of wine included with the tasting.  I would have really enjoyed sitting outside on the beautiful, hot day (it was snowing and freezing in NJ at the time) with a glass of wine but we only had time for the four tastes, and of course the background story…

Mr. Marks explained that he started learning how to make wine from his uncle in Sant’Arsenio, Italy (Province of Salerno) at the age of seven.  When his parents retired to Florida, he decided to follow them from his home in upstate New York.  He wondered aloud why he didn’t make the move sooner.  He noted that he has 42 relatives in the area but he didn’t really see much of them until he opened the winery.

Mr. Marks guided us through the tasting with an expertise and familiarity with the wine that was interesting and educational.  His wines seemed like pure expressions of the grapes and we enjoyed all four.  I was also caught up in the story of him running the winery four days per week and then boating and fishing the other three days.  Sounds like a fabulous life.

I wish we had time to soak up more of the sunshine and enjoy a full glass of his wine.  We let him know we would be back to do that.  Maybe people just say that sometimes, but with great wine, an enjoyable winery experience, and a beautiful setting, we will be back.

Great Expectations

The expectations one has about a wine can affect the taste of the wine.  Experiments have documented that people given two tastes of the same wine but who are told one wine is more expensive than the other tend to rate the “more expensive” wine as better.  The idea is that we bring our expectations to all of our experiences, including wine tasting and therefore knowledge of price sets an expectation that affects our taste. 

This makes a lot of sense to me as a clinical psychologist.  It is not really the situation itself but our perception of the situation, with all of our thoughts, feelings, and expectations, that influences how we experience the situation.  I mostly practice from a cognitive-behavioral theory, which suggests that how we think about a situation affects how we feel and in turn how we behave.  So if we change our thoughts or our expectations, we can have a different reaction to a situation.

I live in New Jersey where the chambourcin grape is popular in winemaking.  I had never heard of this grape before so it really stood out to me the first time I tried it.  But I didn’t really enjoy it.  Each subsequent time I tried chambourcin, even at different wineries, I didn’t like it.  I thought I was keeping an open mind but it seems those expectations did in fact get in the way. 

I know this because I was unwittingly part of an “experiment.”  At one NJ winery, it somehow came up early in the tasting that I am not a fan of chambourcin.  Later in the tasting, the person pouring the wine snuck in a pour of something he didn’t identify at the time.  I enjoyed this wine and was surprised to learn after I drank it, that it was in fact chambourcin. 

Perhaps this particular winery just made great chambourcin?  Maybe, but that didn’t explain it all.  Ever since then I have not disliked chambourcin as much at any winery.  It is still not my favorite varietal but I don’t expect to dislike it anymore and now perhaps I evaluate it a little more fairly.  

Change your thoughts, change your reaction.

Crow Vineyard & Winery – Kennedyville, MD

A boat brought us to the Annapolis area one recent winter weekend.  Well, a car actually brought us there but a boat was the reason.  My significant other wanted to check out a used boat and he convinced me to tag along by strategically mentioning that we could stop at nearby wineries.  On the way down from New Jersey, we only had time to stop at one winery due to an appointment at the boat dealer.  I wanted to choose carefully – a place that wasn’t too far out of the way and that was a vineyard, not just a store front.

Crow Vineyard & Winery turned out to be a great choice.  Although, as you can see from the photos, it was not a sunny day outside, there was plenty of warmth in the tasting room both from the cozy atmosphere and the friendly winery staff.  We were instantly greeted by a woman who explained the tasting options (there are two).  We made our choice but asked if we could substitute a taste of their sparkling wine instead of their sweet dessert wine, and I appreciated their flexibility when there was a yes without hesitation.  We have often bought the wine we switched to (since we are typically switching from a wine we likely won’t like and therefore won’t buy to one we think we will like and might buy), so being flexible with the tasting can, quite literally, pay off.

As we tasted the wines, which were very enjoyable, we heard the story of the winery. We were informed that Crow Farm is a third generation working farm that previously was a dairy farm.  The owners are a husband-and-wife team, Roy and Judy, and the third partner is their son, who manages the vineyard.  Their winemaker previously made wine in New York State and California before heading to Maryland. They have been making wine at Crow for seven years and have a wide variety of mostly dry wines, including whites, rosés, reds, a sparkling, and a dessert wine.

The woman pouring the wine had her own story in relation to the winery.  She moved to Delaware from Pittsburgh and started coming to Crow as a customer, and then decided to work there.  I have heard that customer-to-staff-member story before and it always sounds like such a compliment to the winery – that the person had such good winery experiences as a customer and liked the wine (since presumably there is discounted wine involved, why work somewhere you don’t like the wine?) that the person wanted to become a part of the team.

When we explained we were headed for the Annapolis area, two winery staff members provided several suggestions for restaurants and a wine bar.  Conversations with friendly, flexible, helpful people paired with good wine – the perfect combination on a gloomy winter’s day.  Then we had to see a guy about a boat…



Valenzano Family Winery – Shamong, NJ

Full disclosure – I typically write about my first experience at a winery but I have been going to Valenzano Family Winery for about ten years.  So instead of writing about my initial impression of my winery experience there, I am writing about what keeps me going back.  And I think you’ll see why writing this around the holidays is perfect timing.

When my significant other and I walk into Valenzano, we are always immediately greeted by Al, a friend of the Valenzano family who has worked at the winery for 21 years.  Even in our early days of visiting the winery, he would recognize us as return customers and we would catch up.  He recalls that we particularly like their berry red cranberry wine (more on that below) and the dry reds, and lets us know if there are any new wines to try since we had been there last.  Someone who knows the customer, takes a genuine interest in the customer, including likes and dislikes, and treats the customer like a friend or family member creates an excellent winery experience.  Walking into Valenzano reminds me of the old TV show “Cheers” (I am dating myself now), where “everybody knows your name.”

As the name indicates, the winery is family owned and operated.  In 1996, it became the first winery in Burlington County, New Jersey.  They make a wide selection of wine from dry to sweet white and red wines to “other fruit” (non-grape) wines to mead (honey wine) and more.  They have some interesting combinations as well such as blackberry syrah and I think at one point there was a wine with hops.

When we first started going to Valenzano, we were struck by the uniqueness of their berry red cranberry wine, which is actually a table wine that pairs well with food.  The cranberries, sourced from local bogs, are balanced in the wine just right to not be too tart or too sweet (they also make a berry white cranberry for sweet wine fans but that is too sweet for me).

We initially paired the red cranberry wine with a Thanksgiving dinner and it was a big hit.  I’m told it particularly paired well with the turkey.  As a vegetarian, I can’t personally attest to that but it went well with all of the sides too and it made the meal more festive.  The cranberry wine has since become a staple at our holiday meals.

We made a recent trip to Valenzano because ’tis the season and we were running low on berry red cranberry wine.  As always, we received our warm greeting from Al and also spoke with other friendly and knowledgeable winery staff who shared information on winemaking and recommendations for wines at nearby local wineries.  We stocked up on cranberry and also purchased a bottle of their cabernet merlot.

The winery experience at Valenzano is filled with warmth, good friends, and good cheer.  And their berry red cranberry wine in particular always evokes for me a sense of tradition and holiday spirit.

Happy Holidays!

Wine Salon of the Czech Republic – Valtice, Czech Republic

Our final wine stop for the day was at Salon vín České Republiky, the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic, located in the cellar of a Baroque chateau in the town of Valtice.  The Czech Republic has an annual national wine competition in which wines made exclusively from grapes from the Moravian and Bohemian wine regions are entered.  The top 100 wines, selected by a tasting committee, earn the Gold Medal of the Wine Salon and are exhibited in the Salon for the year.

The public can purchase tickets to enter the Salon for 90 minutes or 150 minutes (guided tastings with a sommelier can also be purchased) to try as few or as many wines as they would like within the timeframe.  Bottles of these wines can be purchased as well.

We bought 90-minute tickets and quickly made our way into the Salon. The cavernous basement has displays of wines grouped by varietal with all of the whites first and then the reds.  Information about each wine is on a nearby placard.  You just grab a bottle yourself and pour.

There were so many options it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to proceed.  Where do we start?  We can’t try everything in 90 minutes, right?  How do we choose?  How do we pace ourselves?  How do we not become intoxicated?  From what our tour guide said, tourists don’t typically worry about that last question – she has brought several people here who stumbled their way out.  But I wanted to clearly remember this experience.

Determined to have some sort of plan, we made our way through by selecting a couple of wines of each varietal, usually from different sub-regions to make a comparison.  For example, we tried Chardonnay from the wine sub-regions of Znojemská and Velkopavlovická.  We also tried the oldest wine of the top 100 – a 2008 Rulandské šedé  (Pinot gris) from Velkopavlovická.

This very unique tasting experience was enhanced by the dimly lit, brick-lined cellar setting.  It was an excellent way to try a wide variety of Czech wines from different sub-regions.  Among our favorites were a Cabernet Sauvignon and an Alibernet (crossing of Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon) from the Mikulovská sub-region.  I easily could have spent more than 90 minutes trying all of these fabulous wines…

Mikulov, Czech Republic

The next stop on our Mikulovská wine sub-region tour was the town of Mikulov. As we got out of our tour guide’s car, we noticed large plastic jugs of liquid labeled “Burčák” across the street. We learned that burčák, sold around harvest time, is a young wine that has only been fermenting for a few days, which makes it sweet and low in alcohol. The Moravians apparently claim that drinking several liters helps to ensure good health. One noted risk, however, is that burčák can explode if it is contained too tightly due to the fermentation that is still occurring. So store your burčák wisely – or, better yet, drink it quickly, as it tastes best within the first day or two.

Prior to stopping at a winery in Mikulov, we wandered around the town square and then over the to the Chateau. Mikulov’s first written records date back to 1173, and historical monuments can be seen around the town’s landscape. Photos below show the town square, the path leading up to the Mikulov Chateau, the Chateau itself, and a view of the “Jewish Ghetto” (starting in the mid-15th century, the area adjacent to the Chateau hill was inhabited by Jewish citizens) and the Goat Tower (a two-story fort built in the 15th century to help protect the town). Quite the beautiful, historical setting.

Our winery stop in town was at Rodinné Vinařství Mikulov (Mikulov Family Winery). The winery was closed in preparation for an annual festival but they kindly granted us an appointment for a tasting. The tasting was hosted by a friend of the family, who himself is a wine consultant. Sips of great wines were intertwined with his tales of the history of the winery and Czech winemaking.

This small-production winery makes about 20,000 bottles per year. The winemaker, Kateřina, is one of the few female winemakers in the Czech Republic. The winery is housed in a building that was originally a slaughterhouse. The winemaker bought it ten years ago by offering half the asking price – it apparently took the seller a while to agree (understandably perhaps) but he eventually capitulated. The family is currently harvesting their 8th vintage.

One fun tidbit the wine consultant shared is that rosé wine is often referred to as “pool wine” in Czech. He explained that rosé is good to drink when swimming (a little twist on the American idea of rosé as a “summer wine”). In addition, it was not typically sold at times other than the summer until the country adopted an American holiday that popularized the wine for two weeks in February (leading up to, you guessed it, the 14th). Sure enough, I incidentally came across a blog on “Valentine’s Day in Prague – 11 Spots to Check Out.”

The winery has a beautiful outdoor area and after the tasting we sipped the last of our wine out on the terrace. The combination of the setting, the wine, and the wine education led to an excellent winery experience.

Mikulovská Wine Sub-Region – Czech Republic

Most of the grape growing and winemaking in the Czech Republic is in the region of Moravia (Morava in Czech), so my significant other and I headed by train from Prague to Brno (capital of Moravia). Moravia has four wine sub-regions – Znojemská, Velkopavlovická, Mikulovská, and Slovácká. We were fortunate to take a two-day tour to visit the latter two sub-regions. Day one was Mikulovská.

The first Moravian vineyards were said to be founded on the slopes of the Pálava Hills limestone formation, a dominant feature of the Mikulovská sub-region. The landscape of this area is exceptional, as can be seen by the view from our first stop on the tour at Sonberk Winery. We pulled into the parking lot, and I got out of the car and turned around… and was amazed by the breathtaking beauty.

Sonberk was founded in 2003 and the sleek, modern tasting building was built in 2008 but the vines date back to the 13th century. Their production is about 150,000 bottles per year. We learned that Sonberk was the first Czech winery awarded the highest prize at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.

Sonberk’s winning wine was a dry Pálava, so it was fitting that we were first introduced to this grape here. Pálava, created in the Czech Republic and named after that limestone formation, is a cross between Müller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer and comes in both dry and sweet varieties. Sonberk had sold out of their dry version, so we tasted a sweet Pálava, which was refreshing on this hot, sunny day.

The staff member at the winery did not speak much English so we were glad to have our tour guide interpreting for us. Our guide explained to us that she was speaking Slovak and the winery staff member was speaking Czech but the languages are close enough to be understood. But once the tasting was initiated not much explanation was required – as we tried great wines outside in this stunning setting, few words needed to be spoken.

Czech Republic

Wine in the Czech Republic? When I learned I would have the good fortune of attending an international conference in the capital city of Prague, I did what I usually do when visiting a new place – I checked out the wine scene. The people of the Czech Republic are the largest consumers of beer in the world, so I wasn’t very hopeful that I would find a wine region to explore.  I was surprised and very pleased to learn there are in fact two wine regions in the Czech Republic with over 850 registered wineries.

Winemaking in the Czech Republic dates back about 2000 years; the first vine growers were thought to be Celts. These days, modern environmentally-friendly techniques are used to make 34 varieties of white wine and 26 varieties of red wine.

The vast majority of vineyards (96%) are located in Moravia (Morava in Czech), which has four sub-regions. The remaining 4% can be found within two sub-regions in Bohemia (Čechy), the home to the city of Prague. The most widely planted grapes in the Czech Republic are Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Riesling, and Welsch-Riesling (whites), and Saint Laurent and Blaufränkisch (reds).

My significant other and I wanted the full Czech wine experience, which definitely meant a trip to Moravia. Our extremely helpful and accommodating travel agent, Rachel Blankfield (www.madtravels.org), booked us a two-day private tour to follow the conference. Posts about this awesome adventure to follow.

Prior to traveling to Moravia we toured around Prague and were amazed to find vineyards within the iconic Prague Castle complex. We learned this is the Vineyard of St. Vaclav, located on the eastern edge of the castle. The grapes have been there since 2008 and most are of the Pinot Noir and Riesling varieties.

We happened to be in Prague the weekend of Prosecco Fest, a celebration of the Italian sparkling wine at Prague Castle. How often do you get to attend a wine event in another country? So we braved the festival despite the threat of rain, and we were lucky that the gray skies never did open up.

This was such an amazing setting for a tasting – sitting in front of grape vines, overlooking a beautiful city (view is below) – and by far one of the most unique places I have sipped wine. I just tried to drink it all in…