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Traveling To The Wine Country

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Vineyards in Santa Barbara

By Tom Marquardt And Patrick Darr

More and more people are returning to travel now that the covid virus has abated somewhat. Those of us shuttered inside for months have moved travel plans off the back burner, but remain cautious of flying to overseas destinations.  Both of us have encountered significant difficulties flying and cruising to foreign ports.

For many, the cautious plan is to stay within the United States where home is a few hours away. Unlike travel between the United States and Europe, you don’t need a negative covid test to board a plane home.

With that, California wine country is one of the first destinations wine enthusiasts will consider this summer. And for many of you, tourist-teeming Napa Valley first comes to mind. You may want reconsider.

First, staying in Napa Valley will not be cheap.  The best hotels are charging ridiculous prices – more than $1,000 a night – for luxury accommodations.  Farther afield you can find a room for under $300 but it may not be close to the vineyards or offer the amenities you desire. And in high season you aren’t going to be happy driving long distances and bumper-to-bumper to your hotel, especially if you have been drinking. Even the bed-and-breakfast accommodations can be expensive.

https://www.vecteezy.com/photo/1385385-the-wine-tasting-table-wineglass-close-upSecond, sampling wine in beautiful tasting rooms is not inexpensive. If you’re dreaming of tasting a flight of your favorite luxury wine, expect to pay $50 to $100 a person.  Many tasting rooms apply that to purchases, but there are few values in Napa Valley. Prices of the best premium wines are often more than $100. Since visitors often ship home wines they love or join a wine club, a visit to Napa can become very expensive.

Third, Napa’s commonly traveled arteries, such as Route 29 and the Silverado Trail, are frustratingly congested in summer months.  Many of the popular sites are so commercial, buses are seen in their vast parking lots. Although they offer good introductions to winemaking, most veteran visitors prefer smaller operations that draw fewer people and make less commercial wine.  Many of these wineries are closed unless you call in advance for a reservation.

This is not to say Napa Valley is not a fun destination. It is the epicenter of California wine country and is home to some of this country’s most renown producers. Just visit with reasonable expectations, a lot of patience and a budget.

Alternatively, consider other wine destinations that aren’t as popular.  We love Santa Rita Hills and other parts of Santa Barbara CountyLos Olivos and Solvang are lovely towns close to great wineries and tasting rooms. Prices range from $800 at the beautiful Fess Parker Inn in Los Olivos to less than $300 at the Wine Country Inn in Solvang. Tasting rooms charge far less if anything at all.

Oregon is another option. Far behind Napa in tourism, there are fewer hotels from which to choose and the ones with the best locations are not luxurious. The Willamette Valley is sprawling, so grouping your winery visits requires a good map. Still, we have enjoyed this region for its laid-back, unpretentious character.

Oak barrels

One of us was doing a public wine tasting when the question arose about the origin of the best oak for wine barrels. France is generally considered the best source, but the participant wanted to know why. It was a very good question.

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A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the techniques a winemaker uses to craft a specific style of chardonnay. The use of oak for fermentation and aging plays a significant role in adding complexity and texture to chardonnay, but it also adds a lot of secondary flavors such as clove, butterscotch, vanilla, toast and spice.

Winemakers have turned to several forests in FranceLimousin, Troncais, Vosges, for instance – for centuries. Although there have been challenges to the title, no area has been able to reproduce the quality of the French forests. The reason? Soil.

Just like grapes are impacted by soil left behind by volcanoes, so are trees. The soil beneath the Troncais trees, for instance, is very poor. The trees grow slowly and struggle for water, thus producing a tight grain. This can change the flavor profile dramatically.

Producers have turned to other sources for their wood, partly because French oak costs more than $1,000 a barrel. Hungarian oak is being used more often and American oak is liked for its vanilla flavor. But American oak grown mostly in Missouri can be too aggressive and impart harsh tannins. In the end, France wins the day and the high cost of its wood is passed along to consumers.

However technical this all sounds, oak plays a crucial role in determining what wine you like. If you dislike the tannin that makes your mouth pucker, you don’t want a red wine that has been aged in oak for a couple of years. On the same hand, if you dislike the vanilla and spice flavors in chardonnay, you will want to look for unoaked chardonnays. As a winemaker once told us, who wants to pick splinters out of their mouths after drinking chardonnay?

Wine picks

Cantine Ermes Quattro Quarti Nero D’Avola Appassimento Sicilia DOC 2019 (DrinkHacker)

We recently tasted two Sicilian nero d’avola red wines and once again were impressed with both their amazing quality and wallet-friendly prices.

Nero D’Avola Feudo Desisa Vuaria Monreale DOC Sicily 2015 ($25). Despite 7 years in the bottle this nero d’avola exhibits fresh fruit flavors of pure cherry and plum with a hint of tobacco. A lovely wine at a reasonable price.

Cantine Ermes Quattro Quarti Nero D’Avola Appassimento Sicilia DOC 2019 ($17). This is an amazing, consumer-friendly wine made from some partially dried and freshly picked nero d’avola grapes. Plum and dried cherry notes dominate with leather overtones. A great crowd-pleasing package.

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr, MoreAboutWine, posted on SouthFloridaReporter.comJuly 10, 2022

Republished with permission

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a weekly wine column for more than 30 years. Additional Wine reviews on MoreAboutWine

All photos are randomly selected and do not indicate any preferred wine. Listed prices are subject to change and do not include tax or shipping.

You can send questions to Tom Marquardt mailto:marq1948@gmail.com

Always drink responsibly!

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They have traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the United States. Tom currently resides in Naples with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. His web site is MoreAboutWine.com. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, MD.

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