My friends are always surprised when I tell them that I often visit winery tasting rooms. "But why?" they exclaim. "After all, you can get on the inside." That's true. And I do plenty of that, too.
But sometimes you don't want "the treatment." You just want to be a regular wine sort and waltz into a tasting room to experience wines and wineries like everyone else.
Also, sometimes you want to take the measure of a winery new to you without committing a lot of time. Believe me, nothing is more painful than a private visit to a winery whose wines, you belatedly discover, aren't for you.
On the other hand, one of wine's greatest thrills is happening upon a winery about which you know nothing and discovering an unknown (to you) gem. That recently occurred in, of all places, Napa Valley.
I was working the Silverado Trail on the east side of Napa Valley and spotted a sign for a place I've passed dozens of times but never bothered to visit: Casa Nuestra Winery.
So I stopped and found myself in a tiny, funky tasting-room. Casa Nuestra, I discovered, has been around since 1979. All right, so I'm a little late.
I soon discovered that Casa Nuestra is much smaller than your average Napa Valley winery, what with a total annual production of just 1,500 cases divided among seven wines. Even by Burgundy's standards that's fractionalized, never mind in Napa Valley, where "small" means 15,000 cases a year.
The first wine offered was a 2001 Chenin Blanc. I groaned inwardly, because too many California Chenin Blancs are dullards. Boy, was I ever surprised. This was terrific Chenin Blanc: dry, not a trace of oak and suffused with the grape's signature scent of anise/licorice. The vines are 40 years old. The bottle price? $16. I bought two cases.
Then came another mindblower, a red wine called Tinto Classico from the 2000 vintage. "It's made from nine different grape varieties: Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Mondeuse, Gamay, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Pfeffer and Pinot Noir," said my tasting room server, who was the entire tasting room staff that day.
Now, I have to tell you that I usually find such "field blends" to be less than inspiring. Wrong again. It had a strong whiff of peppery Petite Sirah with a note of dried cherries, probably from the Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. "It's from a 60-year-old vineyard in Oakville," the server noted.
With that, I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole. There's a 60-year-old vineyard in Oakville -- land of $100 Cabernets -- with a field blend? "Actually, it's right next to Harlan Estate," she said. "We had to raise the price a bit," she added apologetically. "It's $30."
This is the kind of tasting room experience I adore. It's the thrill of discovery, that unmatched sensation of having been there before the word got out. That seems impossible these days, but clearly it's not.
You never know what you're going to find -- good and bad -- but I figure that the big boys are usually going to offer their most commercial wines. That's often the case.
But then I walked into Freemark Abbey, which sees throngs of wine-trippers, and there were their signature single-vineyard Cabernets: Bosché and Sycamore. Annual production for each is fewer than 3,000 cases. I tasted 11 wines for five bucks -- and got a glass to take home!
By comparison, Duckhorn Vineyard's elegant tasting room was a hard-selling, less-rewarding experience, offering just three generic wines -- Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon -- for $10.
At Miner Family Vineyard that same price gets you five wines -- including two vintages of Miner's top vineyard-designated Cabernet -- served in a big Spiegelau glass. Now that's more like it. There's another set of five wines almost as good for just $5, served in the same glassware.
When I complimented Dave Miner on his wineglasses -- a fetish of mine, I know -- I found a kindred spirit.
"It drives me nuts when I see crummy glasses in winery tasting rooms," he said. "If people take the time to visit our winery, then we want our wines to show as well as possible. Why wouldn't we? I don't understand how you can not use good glasses."
Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.