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Tasting Rooms -- People There Can Make Your Trip
It isn’t written about much, but those who spend more than just a little time touring areas that produce wine all agree that one’s enjoyment while visiting a winery is directly related to the charisma and knowledge of those who work in the tasting rooms. Conversely, get stuck tasting with a rude or condescending pourer, and the experience could well ruin ones day. You may ask . . . why would a winery permit the latter, especially when such conduct negatively affects sales? The truth is that there aren’t enough top of the line people to go around, and those vintners that have them are smart enough to do what is necessary to keep them.
As writers, we are often invited to sample wines and tour wineries, and in recent years we are more often than not hosted by winery owners or national sales managers. However, just as we did on our first visit to Napa Valley, we still visit scores of wineries on an anonymous basis and interact with many people in the tasting room. Some are delightful to spend time with, and when we find them, we appreciate them just as much now as when we first began our love affair with wine.
While different publications over the years have lauded an entire tasting room, we cannot recall ever seeing an article about the individuals that toil in these most important areas, and so well represent their employers. And it’s kind of a shame, really, because these people are often fascinating. You can tell what’s coming, of course, so let’s give recognition to some of the deserving tasting room representatives in the Napa Valley who work with the public day in and day out, and whom you might want to seek out during your visit to the Valley. We observed everyone mentioned as late as October of 2005. Alphabetical order seems the fairest (or at least for us it will be the safest), and like a thank you speech at the Academy Awards, it is entirely possible we will omit someone who should be mentioned. If so, we apologize in advance.
Holly Andreson (Napa Cellars): One has to be careful not to talk solely about Holly’s good looks, for she has savvy and brains as well. Rising from entry level positions with a number of wineries, she is now General Manager of Napa Cellars, and makes it a point to be in or near the tasting room at all times. The atmosphere at Napa Cellars is professional and friendly – a reflection of this young woman.
Thrace Bromberger (Napa Wine Merchants): A trained lawyer, Thrace is a partner in Gustavo Thrace, which is producing some outstanding bottles. However, she also runs a collective in downtown Napa where she not only sells her own wines, but also those of other producers who do not have their own tasting room. With Thrace you get good humor and some smart conversation – assets that make tasting with her a pleasure.
Tim Bouchet (Pride Mountain): At all times greeting winery guests with a smile (and always remembering his clients), Tim has the added good fortune of being able to guide visitors through a tasting of wines that are rapidly achieving cult status. Our inclusion of Tim is not solely due to his unflagging good mood, but because he has the knack of explaining his product to novice and professional alike without seeming condescending to either. This is a rare talent.
Cidy Correa and Shawn Leroux (“The Salon” at Swanson): Swanson offers a unique sort of tasting (and rightfully charges a fair price) for small groups. We salute full time personnel (they call themselves “saloniers”) Cidy Correa and Shawn Leroux, as well as pinch hitter Kaitlin Balek, who also spends much of her time in marketing. These individuals lead you through a tasting of numerous wines and wine/food pairings, and even include a fascinating double blind experiment. All the while the visitor is learning about the industry as well. A great concept.
Tyson Ducker (Barnett): A personable and knowledgeable young man, Tyson allows you to forget the sometimes harrowing trek up Spring Mountain Rd. by pouring the excellent Barnett products and chatting about anything on your mind. Ask him about a barrel sample, sit back, and enjoy the company in a classic Napa setting.
Chalo Fernandez (St. Supery): One of our newest “finds,” we have not only enjoyed having Chalo pour us the vast array of wines available for tasting at St. Supery, but we have watched his stellar interaction with others. The joy with which he does his job, and his take charge manner, sets the stage for a great experience -- just what the owners (and customers) want.
Richard Hedrick (Bremer Family): One of our personal “mentors” in the Valley, Rich, a former school principal, has the innate ability to beautifully explain and teach so much more than most about the wine industry in general, and Napa in particular. Affable, stylish, and easy going, tasting with Rich and listening to old Valley stories (not to mention learning about the new Bremer wines) is a terrific way to spend a sunny afternoon in wine country.
Michael Jobes (Domaine Carneros): Mike’s personal domain is down the stairs from the large welcoming area, yet it’s worth the exploration to find him. Domaine Carneros produces both stills and sparklings, and Mike is one of those types we seek who will give you fair and honest evaluations of the wines he is pouring.
Jim Kozier (Rombauer): There is no tasting room in Napa more crowded than Rombauer, and few, if any, that sell as much wine to those who visit. These factors mean that the person in charge must be part administrator, part greeter, part psychologist, and a full time wine expert. Jim not only has these assets, but has passed them on to the young and exceptional staff in his wine room.
Sabree Loveall-Hawkins (Frog’s Leap): Elegance and wine experience describe Sabree’s (Se-BRAY) style. At Frog’s Leap you will have the opportunity to taste in style. Enjoy a beautiful arbor view, inspect some of the oldest buildings in the Valley, or simply chat with Sabree while you sit in the sun and enjoy the people. You will leave this winery with a terrific feeling and an appreciation for Napa’s history.
Marc Moynier (Cliff Lede): It isn’t so easy to pour and sell at a relatively new winery, but Marc seems to not know that. We have seen his employer select him to pour for Cliff Lede’s frequent clients, and we have observed him dealing just as professionally with those who walk in off the street. Ask him about the art gallery, and take some time chatting with him while you roam the gift shop. Marc will help you in every way.
Harvey Posert (A Dozen Vintners): There aren’t many people who can sell as much wine as Harvey, and there aren’t many people in the Valley who are liked as much, either. When Harvey ran what was then a little known winery’s tasting room, we watched a parade of people constantly visit, have a blast, and buy case after case of wine. The winery now enjoys great recognition in large part due to Harvey’s following. As new manager of “A Dozen Vintners” on Rt. 29 north of St. Helena, he cheerfully has his clientele taste wines from numerous vintners, all the while answering any question they might have about the Valley.
Vicki Reza (Sequoia Grove): Sometimes you just gravitate to a pourer because you can tell s/he has the knowledge and attitude to provide a first rate experience. We decided Vicki was “for us” when she steered us away from what she felt were some less than stellar wines made by her employer, and onto ones we appreciated. It’s great to trust your pourer, that’s for sure.
Karen Rivers and Kathy O’Brien (Luna Vineyards): Newly appointed as tasting room manager, Karen is not only a student of wine, but also she cannot do enough for her clientele. You won’t always see her, since her office is hidden, but the good news is that even if Karen is not on the floor, charming, delightful and knowledgeable Kathy will be. Sitting as it does at the door to the Silverado Trail, Luna is fortunate to have such people out front. So are the visitors, because a stop here is the start of a great day in wine country.
Jayme Silva (Robert Biale): As a rule you need an appointment to taste at the new Robert Biale winery. And we can vouch for the fact that many places requiring appointments are so full of themselves that they believe they are doing you a favor to let you in the door. But not at Biale, and not with Jayme, whose affability sometimes masks his expertise. Don’t be fooled. Let him lead you through, and teach you about, a fine array of wines.
Karen Tussing (Louis Martini): An absolute bundle of energy, Karen can make you feel as if you have been frequenting the Martini tasting room forever. Whether it be hosting a special event of luminaries, or making walk-ins feel special, this Napa Valley native is the picture of tasting room charisma.
Dennis Zabloski (Frank Family): Dennis is the final name, but only because of the “Z.” If we were saving the best for last, it would work out as well. Known far and wide as the dean of Napa Valley tasting rooms, Dennis not only shares the love of his own wines, but can help you discover where else to taste, where to dine, or where to stay. When you savor each wine with Dennis in his office, you should be ready to buy. Yes, we know the product is good, but, with due respect to all the others we have mentioned, Dennis is the best. You’ll buy more than you intended, and will be happy you did.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.