Wine Tasting in Carmel: Is the Wine Passport a good deal?

It’s been a few years since our last stay in Carmel, so on our drive over, I started looking up the wine tasting rooms in town.  I saw many mentions of the wine passport or wine walk, so I looked into it and we decided to buy it to see if it was worth the hype.  I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, but figured that since we would be visiting a lot of tasting rooms (all walkable, which is a huge plus), we would get some value from the passport.

Was it worth it? For us, no. For some people, maybe.  There are 13 wineries that participate and we only really visited 6 of them (although one has a shared room with a winery we tasted at, so we had wines from 7 of them, and one I just went in to check out so I know how it’s set up). For the most part, there is no discount if you have the wine walk cards, but I’ll get into the specifics at each tasting room (that we went to).

The wine walk passports can be purchased at the Visitor Center at Carmel Valley Plaza (if you enter on the Ocean Avenue side, it’s on that same level).  The cost is $100 and it can be shared – you’re given 10 separate “wine walk cards” so you could even split it between 10 people at one winery.  With the passport you get one 10% coupon that can be used at any of the wineries.  This alone could make it worth it. Although we bought wine, we didn’t use the card yet, but I plan to use it in the future.  Which brings me to the next detail – these cards don’t ever expire!  I’m just hoping I don’t lose our leftover cards before our next trip!

As I mentioned above, this isn’t a great deal and had I known more about it beforehand, I would have passed. But since I didn’t, here’s a quick review of each wine tasting room we visited, and how the cards worked (or didn’t work) for us:

This was our first stop after purchasing the wine passport.  Unfortunately, they are not one of the 13 participating wineries (oops!). They just opened the day before, so they very well could be added to the wine walk passport in the future.  The tasting fee was $20, so Ryan and I split it and tasted two chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. The wines ranged from $25-$50 (but the $25 Chardonnay and the $30 Pinot Noir were not nearly as good as the more expensive bottles).  There was also a tasting for members only, which included a GSM.  They happened to have that bottle open, so we got to try it. It was our favorite wine, so we bought two bottles. It wasn’t cheap ($45 each), but I wanted at least one, and with the purchase of two bottles the tasting fee is waived, so the second bottle was really only an additional $25.  The tasting room was beautiful and comfortable, and I’d definitely visit again!

Next door to the Cheese Shop, Wrath has three different tasting menus in addition to a cheese and cracker platter.  The standard tasting was $10 and had three wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir), which is what the wine passport cards covered this tasting.  The other two tastings were each $20 and had five wines to taste, and I would have much preferred one of those.  We were not offered the option to use our cards and pay the difference, but I also didn’t ask because I didn’t realize that would be an option.  So in this case, the wine passport doesn’t save any money – each card is worth $10, and the standard tasting was $10. In fact, we only used one card because we bought a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc (only $19) and waived one of our tasting fees.  I do highly recommend the cheese platter, which features three cheeses (purchased from the cheese shop next door).

If you like sparkling wines, make sure you stop at Caraccioli! The tasting here costs $20, so this is where the wine card might work in your favor.  Instead of paying $20 for six wines, the card gets you three tastes.  Since there isn’t an option to only pay $10 for a tasting, this allows you to get a sampling of what Caraccioli offers (including the Brut Cuveé, a Chardonnay, and a Pinot Noir) without paying $20 to taste.  I didn’t want to miss out on the rosé or the extra Chardonnay and Pinot, so we were offered the option to use the cards and pay $10 to taste them all.  Caraccioli also had a Library Tasting for $15, which has the 2007 Brut Cuveé (the one on the standard tasting list is 2010) and the 2007 Brut Rosé.  The cards cannot be used toward the Library Tasting, but if you’re a fan of bubbly like me, this is a must! We didn’t buy anything because our favorite wines were all quite pricey, but I think I’ll plan to use my 10% off coupon here the next time we visit, and get a couple of bottles of the sparkling wine.  We visited Caraccioli not long after breakfast, so we skipped on the food, but they do sell a cheese and charcuterie plate, as well as a few other small bites.

4. Shale Canyon Wines (and Blair Estate)
Shale Canyon was my favorite of the tastings we did in Carmel.  They share a room with Blair Estate, and they trade off each week manning the tasting room. We had the pleasure of learning about both wineries from Jake, who is one of the owners of Shale Canyon. We were told that we could use our cards to taste either the Shale Canyon wines or the Blair Estate wines, and we both chose Shale Canyon because we wanted to take a break from the Chardonnays and Pinots for a minute.  It was a very relaxed and personalized tasting experience, and we ended up being able to taste a couple of wines that interested us from the Blair wine tasting list as well.  Some of the highlights for us included the Shale Canyon Mourvedre, Tempranillo, and Malbec.  We bought several bottles of wine, and Jake waived our tasting fees, which means we didn’t have to use a wine passport card.  We will definitely be visiting the tasting room on our next visit to Carmel!

5. Galante Vineyards
Galante’s western-themed tasting room definitely has a fun and lively vibe.  That being said, it wasn’t one of my favorites, but I may be biased for a few reasons: (1) it was our last stop on a long, hot day, (2) it was overly crowded [and we had a sleeping baby in a stroller – who didn’t wake up!], (3) there were dogs in the tasting room, and (4) I just didn’t love the wine.  The wine passport might make some sense here, but ended up being a wash for us, since I splurged and added an extra wine.  Their normal tasting menu is $15 for a taste of 5 wines – all 4 from the top portion of their list (a 50/50 Malbec and Merlot blend, a Malbec, a Bourdeaux blend, and a Cabernet Sauvignon) and 1 from the reserve tasting list (two Cabs and the “Grand Champion” – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petite Syrah).  You could add additional tastings for $5, so for $25 you could taste all 7 wines.  With the wine passport, we were able to taste all four wines from the top portion of the list, and I ended up paying an extra $5 to try the Grand Champion, since I didn’t love any of the first few wines.  The Grand Champion was definitely the best of the bunch, but still didn’t compare to some of my other favorites from earlier in the day.  They also have wines available by the glass (prices vary) and a cheese plate for $12.

Scheid’s tasting room is clean and bright, and definitely a good place to start the day.  It has a more sophisticated vibe than many of the other rooms, so I wouldn’t want to show up here at the end of a long day of tasting!  This is another tasting room where it didn’t make a difference to us whether we used the passport card or not – their standard tasting is $10 for 4 wines (so you can use the card in lieu of paying $10), and you can choose from a list of 8 (half white and half red).  They also have a Claret Reserve and a sparkling wine, each for an additional $5.  So we did one of these tastings, plus I added the sparkling wine, because I can’t resist.  They also have a reserve tasting for $25 – not covered by the wine passport, but we got one of these as well.  It included three Pinot Noir and the aforementioned Claret Reserve.  We very much enjoyed the wines.  They also waive the tasting fee if you purchase two bottles, which is always a nice bonus.

Finally – a tasting room that actually gave us a reason to use our wine passport cards!  The normal tasting is $15 for 4 wines (Rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Barbera).  With the wine passport, we were able to taste the first 3 wines (remember that each card is essentially worth $10), plus we could add the Barbera for $3!  We added the Barbera (which was well worth it – definitely the best wine they had!), so we tasted all 4 wines while we learned a bit about the owner – Alan Silvestri.  He’s a composer and has scored over 100 films.  They had a list available, so it was fun to look through and count the movies we had seen.

I was debating whether I should do one more tasting before we left on Monday afternoon. I popped into Manzoni to see what they were pouring (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also Syrah, and they usually have a Rosé, but they were out of it).  Their normal deal is $10 for 4 tastes (they had six wines to choose from normally, but they only had 5 since they were out of the Rosé), and you could pay $2.50 to taste additional wines ($12.50 for 5 or $15 for 6).  With the wine passport pass, you could taste 3 wines, so it’s not a good deal…for anyone!  I didn’t really need another tasting, so I left without trying their wines (if we do visit again and decide to taste here, we will definitely be paying for a tasting and not wasting one of the wine passport cards).

Overall the wine passport was NOT a good deal for us.  There were a few wineries that actually gave it some purpose, but for the most part we would have gotten the same deal if we had just walked in and paid.  However, the 10% off coupon could be a tie-breaker, especially if you use it on a larger wine purchase (I’m not sure if there’s a limit or not).  I wouldn’t recommend the passport to any of my friends, since it’s a big commitment to use all of them (we visited 6-7 participating wineries and we both tasted at most of them, and we still didn’t use them all), and if you are more than a very casual wine taster, you’ll likely be enticed by some of the premium tastings, which aren’t covered by the wine passport.

Note: we did not visit Dawn’s Dream Winery, De Tierra Vineyards, Winery Oaks, Smith Family Wines, or Carmel Road, so I’m not sure what their wine passport deals are.  We do have three wine passport cards left (after our mix of either using two cards, sharing one tasting, or paying for the tasting ourselves), so maybe we’ll check a few of these out the next time we visit Carmel!

Napa Valley, New York?

One of our favorite activities during our trip to New York was visiting the High Line and the Cheslea Market.  Both were overcrowded, but very enjoyable, especially after a satisfying brunch.  The Chelsea Market reminded me a bit of what an expanded Ferry Building (in San Francisco) might look like – the same sort of feel and idea, but a lot more people and more shops and restaurants.

Chelsea Market, New York

To avoid the hordes of people and satisfy our wine addiction, we stopped into a wine shop, Chelsea Wine Vault, to explore.  Once there, we learned about a weekend “wine school class” they offer: each weekend features four wine from a specific region (it changes each weekend), and the class is taught by a sommelier.  It just so happens that our wines were all from Napa Valley – somewhere all four of us had been.  Since none of us had ever done anything quite like this, and because a little wine in the afternoon sounded delightful, we paid the $20/person and waited for the class to start. 

I’m so glad we took the class.  Not only did we try fantastic wines (my favorite was the 2010 Pine Ridge “Forefront” Cabernet Sauvignon – I left with a bottle and plan to visit the winery next time we’re in Napa), but we learned a lot about what to look for when tasting wines and evaluating wines.  We even had an official “Wine Evaluation Form” in our packet, which helps explain what “90+ points” means for a wine.  One fun fact we learned is that when wines are evaluated, they are only compared to wines of the same varietal, from the same region, and within the same price range.  

Wine Evaluation Form

Our sommelier was David Hunter, who personally tastes and buys all of the wine sold at the Chelsea Wine Vault.  He was funny and full of information – the hour-long class flew by and we were wishing it was longer.  We went through each section of the evaluation form, and I’d love to pass along some of the information we learned (a brief overview). 

1. Appearance (15 points) – color and clarity: hold your wine glass at a 45° angle against a white piece of paper to judge the color and clarity.  Is the color consistent all the way through?  Is it cloudy, chunky, hazy, or clear?

2. Nose (20 points) – cleanliness, complexity and bouquet: is the aroma appealing?  Or does it “hurt” you (think of smelling vodka)?  Does it smell like cheap perfume, is it too fruity, or does it have no smell? The complexity – how many aromas can you identify?  Are there multiple layers?  And finally, the bouquet is how the aromas come together – the overall smell.

3. Palate Impression (50 points) – body, texture, flavor, balance, and finish & aftertaste – how heavy does the wine feel on your tongue?  Is the texture smooth, does it “hurt” you (again, think about taking a shot of vodka), is it acidic (does it make your mouth water)?  Is each element balanced without one taking over (for example, not too sweet or too acidic)?  How long does the aftertaste stay in your mouth? If it’s under 30 seconds, it’s simple, if it’s between 30 seconds and one minute it’s medium, and if it’s over a minute, it’s complex.

4. Overall Assessment (15 points) – overall quality, value for your money, food compatibility, aging potential, and general appeal of the wine – is the wine good for the money?  What is the aging potential (he let us know that this would be a hard one for us to judge)?

Wine Tasting, Chelsea Market

And finally, David left us with the most important piece of information: in order to store wine properly, the bottles should be left on their side at 55° F (this we have been following since we started using a wine cooler) and kept in a humid area.  The humidity part is where we failed, but luckily it’s easy enough to fix: just place a damp sponge in the cooler and change it out every month.  While we are likely okay without the added humidity for most of our wines, this tip may save the bottles of Brunello di Montalcino that we brought back from Italy and plan to store for over 10-15 years.  Thank you, David!  The class was enjoyable and informative, and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!

Weekend Getaway: Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

Paso Robles, located just off of the central coast in California, is a lesser-known wine region specializing in Rhone blends.  It was perfect for a one night stop on our way up to the Bay Area for the long Fourth of July weekend.  We visited seven wineries in all, chosen based on a little research we did the night before we left.

It’s not far from Bakersfield, so it’s a shame we don’t go up and visit (and taste!) more often.  Below is a list of where we tasted and some quick information about each tasting room.  If you are passing by, it’s worth a stop for a new wine tasting experience!

The tasting fee is $5 for 8 wines (we shared). We tried one white, one rose, three reds, and three dessert wines (one served with chocolate!).  The lady pouring loves her job and talked to us for an hour as we tasted.  Overall it was a fun experience with a nice variety of wines.

It was a $10 tasting for four Zinfandels, so we shared again. They had a mix of old and young Zinfandels, and it was fun to compare them all. They also had delicious rosemary crackers at the bar – we bought a package for our picnic later in the day.  Overall it was the quickest and least personal tasting of the trip, but it’s worth a stop if you are a Zinfandel lover.

They have free tastings, so we both had our own. We finally saw the beautiful views we were waiting for (see below). The tasting room is in the barrel room, which was a fun atmosphere. We also were able to taste a 2011 and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from the barrel. We’ve done barrel tasting twice before and never have I tasted such drinkable barrel wine.  We decided to buy an older vintage of the same wine, hoping that the bottled version would taste even better!

Écluse Winery, Paso Robles

The tasting fee is normally $10, but if you check in on yelp, you get a complimentary tasting.  We weren’t a huge fan of their wines (some were just too sweet for us), but the patio area was beautiful (pictured below) and had a view of the valley below. We bought a bottle of white wine and picnicked for lunch. 

Calcareous Winery, Paso Robles

The cost is $10 for the reserve tasting and $15 for the signature tasting – both come with small cheese tastes for each wine. One tasting fee was waived with the purchase of three bottles, so we ended up getting the $15 tasting for free.  There is an indoor tasting area but you can also take you wine outside to a terrace with tables set up.  In my opinion, Jada has the best wines we tasted, but be prepared to spend a bit more (for the tasting and the bottles). 

Tablas Creek
$10 tasting for 6 wines – 5 were on the regular tasting menu and they had a bonus rose which was their “wine of the month.” The glass (which was my favorite of all the wineries we visited) was included with the tasting fee. As a bonus, the tasting fee was waived with the purchase of one bottle, so we purchased two bottles and both of our tastings were free.  

Tablas Creek Winery, Paso Robles

A father and son team own the winery and they specialize in Italian varietals.  The six wines to taste were Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Aglianico, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel and they are all 100% (no blends). They only produce 2,500 cases per year and don’t really distribute, so we took advantage and bought four bottles for $16 each (two Nebbiolo and two Sangiovese) – the cheapest stop on our trip!

On our next trip to Paso Robles we will probably taste at different wineries (there are so many to choose from), but if we do repeat, I would prefer to taste at Écluse, Jada, and Caparone, as those were my favorite wines.  That being said, none of those were great for picnicking, so choose Turley, Tablas Creek, or Calcareous for a place to enjoy lunch.  And finally Rotta was by far the best experience, so if you have time, it’s worth a stop to appreciate a tasting room with history and character.  

Relaxing at Our Casual B&B Wine Bar in Montepulciano, Tuscany

One of our favorite memories from our Greece/Italy Honeymoon in 2011 was the time we spent in the wine bar at Locanda San Francesco, our bed & breakfast in Montepulciano, Tuscany.  Check-in for the B&B was actually in the wine bar, and we were greeted with a complimentary drink and snack when we arrived.  The wine list at the bar features a selection of local wines, most notably the famous Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  There is an option to enjoy a glass, a bottle, or even a tasting flight.  We loved the wine, but the ambiance is what is most memorable.  We not only returned for the experience the night of our arrival, but also each of the following four nights.

Wine bar at La Locanda in Montepulciano, Tuscany

The wine bar includes a small bar as well as several tables, armchairs, and coffee tables. We usually opted for the comfortable arm chairs.  The bar’s clientele included guests from the 4 rooms at the B&B, other tourists visiting Montepulciano, and several locals.  Small snacks, such as nuts and olives, were served with each drink order.  There was also a small food menu served during lunch and the evenings.  We actually opted for dinner at the Wine Bar one of the nights, and were very satisfied with the quality of food. Continue reading

Wine Tasting in Santa Ynez – A (Digital) Scrapbook View

Since I began scrapbooking, I have been spent almost 100% of my time and energy on creating physical scrapbooks.  However, I know that not everyone has the time to put together a scrapbook with printed photos, paper, and embellishments (apparently I don’t either, considering I just now finished the scrapbook for a trip from over two and a half years ago).  I am finally stumbling into the world of digital scrapbooking and can’t wait to share what I’ve come up with! It’s a lot quicker and a lot cheaper.  I love how I can choose the size of the pictures without ordering several options.  I can also swap pictures very easily.  I’m looking forward to spending more time on the digital side of scrapbooking, but I am sure I will never give up the physical scrapbooks.

Anyway, during our visit to Solvang, Ryan and I wine tasted in several areas in the Santa Ynez Valley – Solvang (wineries that were not downtown tasting rooms), Los Olivos (downtown), Foxen Canyon (Los Olivos), and Lompoc (the wine ghetto).  On past trips, we have also tasted in downtown Solvang and Santa Maria.  Here are a few pages that I made (my first digital pages!) with pictures from our trip.  I started out with some background “paper” that I created – two using pictures we took and one using Adobe Illustrator.

SuitcaseJournal: Solvang, Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tasting Digital Scrapbooking Paper

Left: Created from a picture taken at a vineyard in Solvang, CACenter: I took a picture of a bar at one of the wineries we visited.  I used a few copies of the picture to fill the page; Right: Created in Adobe Illustrator based on the Danish-style buildings throughout Solvang.

And now for the three pages I completed using the “paper” above:

1.  These pictures were taken while wine tasting, and I wanted to stick with the traditional mix of green and purple to accompany them.  Nothing too fancy (expect for the gorgeous font – Some Weatz Swatches).  I love rounded corners, so I incorporated that easy technique to this page.

SuitcaseJournal: Solvang, Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tasting Digital Scrapbook Layout Idea by Kristin

 2.  This next page is so completely different than any wine tasting page I’ve ever envisioned.  The Lompoc Wine Ghetto consists of 17 wine tasting rooms in warehouses, so the metal background and warehouse flooring seemed very appropriate. For your warehouse flooring needs, your local warehouse flooring installers can be of great help.
SuitcaseJournal: Lompoc Wine Ghetto, Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tasting Digital Scrapbook Layout Idea by Kristin

3. And finally, a few pictures from downtown Solvang!  I used the Danish-style building background for this and found red push pins at this site.  I’ve used brads, eyelets, and other embellishments on pages I’ve created in the past, but real push pins would obviously pose a problem.  I love the cork board look.

SuitcaseJournal: Downtown Solvang Digital Scrapbook Layout Idea by Kristin

And that’s it for the recap of our Solvang trip over the long 4th of July holiday.  We are very much looking forward to all of the other fun trips we have planned this year!