Finca ca n’Estella Winery – Penedès, Spain

The second stop on our small group wine tour out of Barcelona was at Finca ca n’Estella Winery.  Owned by the Rabetllat i Vidal family since 1964, the winery is currently led by the third generation.  The house on the property dates back to 1847 when the owner was Joan Estella.  Also on the property are 150-year-old olive trees (yes, they make olive oil in addition to wine).  Our tour guide noted that the wines of the Rabetllat i Vidal family have won 120 awards since 2002.

Olive Tree

The Penedès region of Spain is well known for producing the sparkling wine Cava.  Our tour guide indicated that 90% of the Cava produced in Spain comes from Penedès.  She explained that Cava is made using the same method as champagne (that is, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle as opposed to in a tank) and nine different varieties of grapes can be used.  We learned that the aging requirements are 9 months to be called Cava, at least 15 months to be called a Riserva, and at least 30 months to be called a Gran Riserva.

Given the region’s acclaim for sparkling wine, our tasting included three Cavas; although I am told there are high quality still wines produced as well.  One member of our tour group had a glass of Merlot, and she said it was excellent.  We tried two Cavas made from Chardonnay, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo grapes but with different lengths of aging.  The longer aging process added a delicious complexity to the wine.  The last Cava was 100% Xarel-lo, a unique and fabulous wine we all enjoyed.

We started the tasting outside in the courtyard and ended the tasting on an upstairs terrace overlooking the beautiful property.  Light snacks of chocolate and a pastry were served.  The pastry’s taste and texture reminded me of “elephant ears” that were made at a local bakery when I was growing up. They are crunchy and flaky and delicious.  

The star of this tasting, though, was definitely the Cava, which showcased the family’s wine-making tradition and skill.  The view of the courtyard and surrounding property (below) only enhanced this fantastic winery experience.

Oller del Mas – Manresa, Spain

When our small group tour bus started up the long road to Oller del Mas, we noticed a well-dressed man standing outside of his car.  We learned the winery was having a private event, a communion celebration, and the man was the father of the child being celebrated.  His car had broken down, so we offered him a ride in the bus.  He gratefully climbed aboard and at the winery made quite the grand entrance.

The reasons for choosing this venue for a celebration became instantly obvious.  We walked up to a medieval castle dating back to the tenth century with amazing views.  Our tour guide explained that the same family has had the winery since 964 with ownership passing to the eldest son; currently on the 36th generation.

The Oller del Mas vineyards, part of the Pla de Bages wine area (about an hour outside of Barcelona), are organic with clay soils.  Our tour guide indicated harvest is typically September to mid October.  We tried one white wine and three red wines, and received an education on some grapes not well known in the US.  Picapoll negre, for example, our tour guide explained, is a grape that was thought to be extinct but this winery discovered its continued existence.

We started our wine tasting with the white wine paired with cheese outside of the castle.  We proceeded into the castle for a light lunch paired with the red wines, each a well-balanced blend of grapes.  Our group sat at a long table overlooking a beautiful landscape.  As we drank the fantastic wines, we learned a little about our fellow group members.  They mostly hailed from various locations in the US; a trio of pharmacists, a gym owner, a singer, retired teachers. 

After eating, drinking, and chatting, we headed to another outdoor area of the castle.  The views were even more astonishing with lush vineyards, unique soil colors, and a mountain (Montserrat).

Just before leaving, we walked through the vineyards.  I paused for a moment to take it all in.  It was a cloudy day but I hadn’t missed the sun.  The amazing setting and fabulous wines shared with friendly companions made for a day full of warmth and light.

Chianti, Italy

As we traveled out of the bustling city of Florence and up a series of hills, my significant other and I were glad we had not opted to drive ourselves around the Chianti region.  Narrow, weaving roadways, which were expertly maneuvered by our tour guide, gave way to beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside… 

Chianti is home most notably to the Sangiovese grape and, when following a strict set of rules, the Chianti Classico wine (you have probably seen the black rooster on the bottle).  Chianti Classico used to be made primarily with Sangiovese and also white grapes.  Since 2006, however, the rules no longer allow the blending of white grapes.  Chianti Classico is at least 80% Sangiovese and must age for at least 12 months before release (there are different categories depending on the length of the aging).  Other rules apply.

Our first winery stop was at Castellinuzza e Piuca near the village of Lamole.  We were served a light lunch as we sampled their three fabulous wines.  The woman who met with us indicated they are a fourth generation farm and her husband and brother-in-law are the winemakers.  They make a “traditional” Chianti, using white and red grapes (the wine cannot be called Chianti Classico due to the white grapes) and two Chianti Classico wines.  We also walked down to some of their vineyards and saw their new Sangiovese plants (see photo below).

Our second winery stop was at Casaloste located in Panzano in Chianti.  We were grouped with two other couples for our wine tasting and were expertly guided through the wines by a winery staff member.  She regaled the group with stories about the winery and the wines.  Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and the wines were fantastic.  

Our tasting guide highlighted the various rules and strict quality control for Chianti Classico.  She mentioned that their current vintage was removed from the barrels and is waiting in stainless steel tanks for bottling but they are unable to bottle until there is an inspection, tasting, and certification of this wine as being “Chianti Classico.” 

Our tasting guide also shared that the winery is owned by a husband and wife team.  We learned the husband wanted to be a winemaker so he earned his masters degree in winemaking.  The family relocated from Naples City to Tuscany to start their vineyard.  In addition to Sangiovese-based wine, including three Chianti Classico wines of various aging, he makes a Merlot-based wine (with a little Sangiovese).  When asked the reason he chose Merlot specifically, we were told “because he likes to drink Merlot.”  Fair enough.  Our tasting guide also shared that making wines outside the strict rules of Chianti Classico allows for more of the winemaker’s creativity to shine through, which this winemaker enjoys.

A beautiful setting, friendly, knowledgeable hosts, excellent wines, and someone else driving along the narrow hilly roads all made for a very memorable winery experience.

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…