Tasting rooms were a pleasant part of the leisure portion of my recent trip to California’s Sonoma Valley. I had the middle part of a day to devote to pursuit of the grape, so I resolved to spend three hours checking out “California Champagne.” As explained in last week’s blog on Bubble Science, champagne is not only a common name for sparkling wines, but in certain contexts a term that is legally and – dare I say it? – morally justified.
Tasting Rooms: Choices, Choices…
Applying the scientific method, I searched to identify wineries producing sparkling wines and equipped with tasting rooms. I limited myself to a half-hour radius of the guest lodging kindly provided by fellow condo owner Carolyn Yates. My most useful source was a map of bubbly creators subdivided by geography, provided on the California Champagnes website. There were nine sparkling wineries within my target area.
Although I am compulsively thorough, I could not possibly visit 9 vineyards in three hours. Moreover, tasting a sufficient sample of their proud products would lay me out flat. Therefore, additional query filtering was called for.
A review of the websites showed that 6 of the wineries had bubbly as a minor sideline. In 5 cases there was only a single sparkler among a double armload of wines: Harvest Moon, HKG Estate, Inman Family, Paradise Ridge and Woodenhead. One winery, Foppoli, had two bubblies among 8 wine types, and both were sold out.
The other 3 wineries, on the other hand, had California Champagne as a major product. J Vineyards offered 6 sparkler options plus 23 still wines (10 Pinot Noirs, 4 Chardonnays, 3 Pinot Gris and 6 other varieties). Iron Horse had 5 bubblies and 14 still wines (6 Chardonnays and 8 Pinot Noirs). Korbel presented 10 different styles of California champagne plus 7 still wines and 9 brandies. This does not describe the full extent of the choices available: although the standard bottle is 750 ml, the wineries offer many of their bubblies in a range of sizes from cute (187 ml) to “get all my buddies drunk” (3 liters).
Tasting Rooms: J Vineyards
I proceeded to Número Uno Sonoma Champagne purveyor, J Vineyards, owned by Judy Jordan of the Jordan Wines family. They boasted an elegant minimalist road sign.
The approach to the reception building was guarded by a moat featuring lily pads, vegetation and probably resident frogs, whom I did not have time to visit.
Once inside, I found the left side of the room occupied by a charming gift shop in which my attention was drawn to a pastry cookbook with die-cut deckle-edge pages.
I saw a pristine dining room through glass doors to my right; crisp white tablecloths on circular tables accommodating perhaps a hundred guests in all. Framed menus offered sparkling tasting options ranging from $30 to $75.
I stood pondering the wisdom of spending on a tasting an amount of money that would buy me an entire bottle of a very drinkable bubbly. If I were in a very undemanding mood, I could easily secure two bottles for that price! Time marched on as I weighed my values, my tastes and my ambitious goal to survey 3 non-adjacent wineries in a few hours.
Across the back of this welcome room was an elegant and beautiful bar at which a young man was pouring wine samples for a well dressed couple. As I stood there the pourer’s voice wafted across the room. It was haughty in tone, and bristled with winespeak: terroir, provenance, notes of chalk and Gravenstein apples.
Suddenly I knew what I had to do. I collected printed material on the J Wine Club and its current offerings and took my car to the next winery on my mental list.
Tasting Rooms: Korbel
Korbel’s architecture and landscaping reminded me of a regional museum housed in a beautiful but not at all ritzy residence. A shaded path to the right led to a visitor center offering area information and behind-the-scenes tours. The main house, so to speak, housed offices where you might imagine one of the Korbel brothers entering orders in a giant ledger, in round flowing script. Of course, since the winery proudly displays the date 1882, Grandpa Korbel would be about 170 years old today. But no matter.
To the left, another wooded path led to the shop and tasting room.
The entry area reminded me of the front part of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant, although much less cluttered. No offense intended, Grandpa, but it was relaxing and welcoming and equipped with visitor-friendly features.
The kind of refrigerated case that at your convenience store holds sodas was instead packed with every variety of Korbel California champagne, chilled and ready to stuff into your picnic basket.
There were glasses and such for sale, including the world’s cutest champagne flutes, intended as wedding favors.
The Brut Rosé that scored so well in our amateur tasting appeared in the Korbel shop in a special bottle emblazoned with succulent lip prints.
I did not ask why the bottle sported two female lip prints and no evidence of accompanying males. I guess, if you had to ask, you didn’t really need to know the answer.
An arched doorway led to a larger room, containing a tasting bar. The front of that room had even more retail offerings: a boutique with women’s clothing and nice gifts.
It also had an outstanding selection of humorous cocktail napkins. I bought only five packets, but there were many more of equal merit.
Proceeding to the tasting counter, I learned that rather than charging a $30 hit for 5 miserly sips of nectar (à la the previous winery), the fine young man behind the counter offered to let me sample four of their different bubblies for a very attractive price – zip!
Now I am not a cheapskate, and have wasted more money than I dare to admit during an impulsive life. But my friends and I had near-unanimously crowned Korbel as the king of modest-priced pink bubblies, the subject of a previous blog. Thus a gratis chance to try some of their other wines, including some sold only at the winery, was irresistible. And the tastes proffered were generous – a half-flute each of the three that most interested me.
Korbel helpfully lists the sugar content of each Sonoma Champagne variety & sorts them in order of sweetness, ranging from Natural (“natur”) at 0.7% to Sweet Rosé at a cloying 6%. (The Brut Rosé that so captivated our tasting group weighs in at 1.5%.) The sugar content varies in part because of the different blends of grape varieties used. I was especially fond of the very dry (0.75%) Master’s Reserve Blanc de Noirs and bought four bottles (at $24.99 each less 10%), to be sent to my home in Michigan.
Tasting Rooms: Iron Horse
The Iron Horse Winery offered yet another study in marketing-as-architecture. After you venture down a narrow road, far from the main highway, you finally see a sign for the winery. And it is the only sign you will see for the next many miles.
The next blog will detail the excruciating experience of reaching this hidden destination: suffice it to say that the road gets narrower and bumpier, and you are ready to give up altogether, when finally a smooth stately driveway restores your faith in mankind. This long journey to reach the winery is apparently Marketing’s way of ensuring that when (and if) you arrive, you will be heavily invested psychologically, and ready to persevere, and perhaps even to purchase. You arrive thinking to yourself, this place must be great, or people wouldn’t go through this – would they? It’s an accomplishment to get there, the sort of feat that causes people to purchase T shirts in Maui that state “I survived the Hana Highway.”
The barn-like building in front of me could have been any farm structure, except for the presence of three large stainless-steel wine tanks mounted to its wall.
Searching further, I saw a door and windows at the right-hand side, and even a sign. As I approached, I found that the way in was around the right end of the building.
The end of the building turned out to be a covered porch, completely open-air. This was the wine-tasting room: the great outdoors, equipped with a rustic table with the usual young man hoisting bottles behind it. There were chalked blackboards hyping the marketing offerings of the day.
The usual man and woman tourist stood at the table – not even a stool to rest their backsides on – sampling a couple of wines.
I found the designations of the Iron Horse wines confusing. The labels Brut and Brut Rosé were clear enough, telling the buyer what to expect. However, what was I to make of Wedding Cuvée, Commander’s Palace Cuvée and Winter’s Cuvée? Cuvée has many meanings, none of them telling you a whit about the taste or dryness of the beverage.
Moreover, how about the Iron Horse Russian Cuvée, about which all the winery had to say was:
“Russian Cuvée commemorates the style of sparklings we made for the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings which ended the Cold War.”
OK, so it has a back story. We know from earlier blogs (for example, Taste Bias and the $90 Wine) that a story contributes to the experience of tasting a wine. So perhaps what Iron Horse is trying to tell me is, if famed wine connoisseurs Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev found this wine acceptable, who are you, impertinent Art Chester, to question how it tastes?
I was not destined to sample the fine champagne in the shabby rickety tasting room before me. The wine custodian behind the table was deeply involved with the couple in front of him. I had sampled plenty of bubbly at the previous stop. And I had nearly exhausted my allotted time. Moreover, standing in the dirt without even a proper counter to lean against does not tell my body to prepare for a lovely taste experience.
Just as the environment can enhance the taste experience, as we know, it can also spoil it. Thus I left this rustic, end-of-the-road vintner without an immediate taste.
I was nagged by my self-deprivation, but fortunately I found a happy resolution. That evening two of the condo owners and I repaired to the Underwood Bar and Bistro in Graton, a suburb of Sebastopol. I was delighted to see that their by-the-glass champagne offering was from Iron Horse, and none other than the mysterious Russian Cuvée. I enjoyed two flutes and found it to be an adequately dry, crowd-pleasing sparkler with a pleasantly full taste. And I assure you, enjoying this delicious California champagne in a comfortable restaurant with friends was far superior to kicking up dirt in an open-air tasting shack!
I have visited wineries and tasting rooms before, for example in Napa Valley and the Niagara Peninsula. On those visits my goals were different, but my memory tells me that each area’s tasting rooms were somewhat consistent in style and design. So what particularly struck me about my venture into Sonoma’s bubbly harvest was the tremendous contrast between the three tasting rooms that offer a range of champagnes. No one could possibly confuse one of these tasting rooms with another!
… the wine business is … (almost) never about making money. It’s about not losing money.
In other words, wine-making is a very competitive business.
I had chosen these wineries based on their breadth of bubblies and their proximity, but another characteristic they shared was that they are well established businesses:
– Korbel is the 12th largest wine producer in the US, shipping 1.2 million cases a year. They have some prize-winning wines and White House prestige, yet they also offer affordable bubblies that are quite drinkable.
– Jordan Vineyards, the family business from which J Vineyards sprung, is 43 years old; it has won awards for its wine, and Wine Spectator recently named it American Winery of the Year.
– Iron Horse is the youngster of these three, yet still a venerable 39 years old; it has served Presidents, the Queen and a Pope.
In other words, these folks are serious about their line of work, and quite successful at it.
When you put these factors together, it’s easy to see that their tasting rooms, like their labels, their marketing materials and even their name, are part of a carefully-planned image.
Consider J Vineyards with its ultra-sleek logo, the moat-like pond in front and its sleekly modern décor. No casual looky-loos are welcome here. Their tasting room’s proud pricing and its condescending winespeak appear to target a customer who treasures exclusivity and cachet. If you visit wearing jeans, they may set the dogs on you.
Korbel, on the other hand, exudes a folksy welcome. Its historic-looking buildings are tastefully distributed among the trees close to a substantial parking lot. Their friendly approach extends indoors with well-merchandised shops featuring wedding favors and affordable gifts, priced to sell. Their list of wines for tasting conveys actual information, e.g. the sugar content of the wine, not merely flowery phrases. Here is a winery that strives for the heart of America’s wine market, trying to offer a just-right fit for every palate.
Finally, Iron Horse has made the mere discovery of its winery an adventure into the unknown. Their exaggerated isolation down a rutty one-lane road is relieved finally by a stately approach to nothing more than a barn. With practically a lean-to for a tasting room, Iron Horse plays the informality card to the ultimate. Their target client appears to be a guest who wants a story to tell, how he or she persevered through hill and dale to finally discover this gem of a professional operation, and were able to persuade a helpful employee who just happened to be on duty that day to let them taste a treasured nectar. This winery is the eccentric savant who can only be approached by persisting through despair to the final goal.
I am not an expert in the psychology of marketing, but the messages of these three tasting rooms seem pretty clear. They are targeting completely different market segments, and their tasting rooms reinforce that message as part of an integrated marketing strategy.
Do you visit tasting rooms when you travel through wine-producing areas? What do you make of their similarities, and their differences?
Image Credits: Art Chester