(May 2, 2017) Kiona Vineyards, located in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State, was the first stop of the day. One of the oldest wineries in the region, established in 1961, it is famous for its big luscious cabernet sauvignons, old vineyards, and a panoramic view of the valley.
Therefore it was only fitting that this was location of a master class tasting on Washington cabernet sauvignons. We spent several hours tasting 12 wines and listening to the fascinating tales of the winemakers who made them. I must say that I have always enjoyed Washington cabernet sauvignons and red blends, because of the distinctive texture of the tannins on my palate. They are more powdery, and remind me of the tannins found in the Bolgheri region of Italy.
Washington Cabernet Sauvignon Master Class
After the tasting, we were treated to lunch on the sunny terrace. Walking outside we were welcomed by our hosts with a large ice bucket filled with Champagne, local sparkling wine, and Mexican beer. This was an excellent palate refresher after evaluating the delicious and tannic cabernets.
Champagne and Tacos on the Terrace of Kiona Vineyards
Just beyond the drinks table was a food truck in the parking lot, specializing in tacos. This was a great treat for most of the MWs who were looking forward to tasting Mexican food in the US. Also, the trend of “gourmet food trucks” is sweeping the nation, and so it was enjoyable to have lunch provided by a taco truck. The menu included the following delicacies:
Mexican Tacos – Shredded chicken, pork and vegetarian choices
Fresh salsa, cilantro and warm flour tortillas
Elote on a Stick – grilled corn on the cob with mayonnaise, powdered Mexican cheese, chili pepper and lime
Mexican cold slaw salad
Refried beans with cheese
The Taco Truck at Kiona Vineyards, Washington
Everyone lined up to enjoy the meal, with many people returning for second and third helpings of tacos. We enjoyed our meal at outdoor tables, overlooking Kiona’s rare cabernet sauvignon vineyard, planted in 1975 and using a unique 6-foot vertical fan trellis system. During lunch, we were joined by the six winemakers who had showcased their beautiful Washington State cabernet sauvignons during the morning seminar. In this way, we were able to continue our educational discussion.
Not only do they produce big, inky, chewy and high satisfying red wines from Washington State, this winery also boasts a very unique wine story. Started by retired police officer, Jerry Riener, the name “Guardian” is to honor the role of police across the country that protect and serve their country.
Cop Turned Winemaker – Jerry Riener at Guardian Cellars, WA. Photo Credit: Guardian Cellars
When I met Jerry at the MW tasting in Woodinville, he told the story of when he served as an undercover agent for 3 years, living in a penthouse over-looking Seattle and driving a sports car. Though the assignment wrecked havoc on his personal life, in the end the taskforce was able to bring down one of the largest drug cartels in the US.
After this feat, Jerry decided it was time to pursue another dream – to start a winery. Today Guardian Cellars, located in Woodinville, Washington, produces around 10,000 cases of delicious wines. Jerry also was able to finally settle down with family and enjoy life. However, he admits that he stills stay in touch with his buddies on the force, and that police officers around the country are one of his larger customer bases. Part of this may be because of the unique names for his wines. We tasted:
The Informant 2014 Guardian Cellars ($30) – a dark inky syrah oozing with blueberries, black liquorish and spice with massive tannins and a very long finish.
The Wanted 2014 Guardian Cellars ($39) – a velvety Bordeaux Blend with 40% cab, 31% cabernet franc, and 29% merlot. Very rich red plum, cassis, and spice with smooth tannins. Delicious.
Guardian Wines. Photo Credit: H. Young, Seattle Mag
During our 5-day tour of Washington State, we learned many interesting facts about Washington wine. To begin, Washington is the second largest wine-producing region in the USA after California. As of 2016, Washington has 681 bonded wineries (Fisher, 2017), and over 900 brands.
Old Vines at Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State
The oldest winery in Washington is Columbia Winery, established in 1962. The second oldest is Chateau St. Michelle started in 1967. Today they are both the largest wine producers in the state, and are ironically located across the road from one another in the town of Woodinville, about one hour northeast of Seattle. Though their headquarters are here, the majority of Washington grapes are grown in the eastern part of the state, which is much warmer than the cool rainy region near Seattle.
In order to take advantage of the many tourists who visit Seattle, a large number of wineries have established tasting-rooms in the town of Woodinville. Today there are more than 140 places here where visitors can sample delicious Washington wines.
We stayed for one night in Woodinville, and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings of the Willows Lodge Resort. It was located within walking distance to Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michelle, and Januik/Novelty Hill Winery, which we visited during our stay.
Columbia Winery in Woodinville. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org
Major Grape Varietals in Washington
According to Washington Wine.org, currently there are over 50,000 acres of vineyards planted with nearly 70 varieties, with 58% red and 42% white. The five most planted grapes, according to Washington Wine are:
Wine Grape Varietal
From a public perspective, Washington’s signature white grape is Riesling and signature red is a Red Blend, usually including cabernet sauvignon and merlot – sometimes syrah. However, its most distinctive red is Syrah, which is produced in a Northern Rhone style with earthy, black fruit, massive tannins and high level of complexity.
Appellations, Climate and Soil
Washington has 14 appellations (AVA’s), with 13 of them in the warmer Eastern part of Washington, and only one – Puguet Sound AVA – in the cooler Western region near Seattle (see map). The terroir reflects these extremes with a maritime climate in the west with 35 inches of annual rainfall, and a continental climate in the east with an average of only 8 inches per year rainfall. Eastern Washington has a hot, dry climate in the summer with an average of one more hour of sunlight, around 16 hours per day, compared to other wine growing regions.
Wine Regions and AVAs of Washington State. Photo Credit: Washingtonwines.org
A unique feature is the large swings in temperature between day and night (diurnal shift) of up to 40 degrees F, allowing grapes to ripen longer and retain freshness. Of the 14 AVA’s Yakima Valley is the oldest, established in 1983 and Lewis-Clark the newest in 2016. Some of most well-known AVAs include Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley.
The soil of Washington state is a mixture of volcanic basalt, sandy loam, silt, and some caliche (limestone). Its ancient geological past of multiple volcanic activity, megaflood, and winds created this unique composition, which for the most part has allowed the state to remain phylloxera free. Because of this many of the vineyards are planted on their own roots, instead of grafted to rootstocks. Below is a photo at Ferguson Vineyard near Walla Walla showing unique basalt cliff.
Our MW Group photo with unique vineyard geology (basalt cliff) near Walla Walla
One of the greatest advantages to being a member of the Institute of Masters of Wine is the opportunity to visit the great wine regions of the world with fellow MW’s. This May I was honored to be invited to participate in a 5-day wine tour of Washington State. Altogether 42 MWs from around the world flew to Seattle to learn about and sample the great wines of Washington.
Washington State Vineyards Along the Columbia River. Photo Credit: Washingtonwine.org
Our trip was hosted by Washington State Wines, and I would have to say that this was one of the most well organized wine tours in which I have ever participated. Every last detail was coordinated by President, Steve Warner and VP, Chris Stone of Washington State Wines, along with their amazing team and advice from Bob Betz, MW. The hotels, meals, and transportation were all excellent, and we felt very welcomed and cossetted.
Upon check-in we were given a book that listed each of the 340 wines we would taste during the 5-day trip. The fact that this book was prepared in advance with the participation of more than 100 wineries is testament to the extraordinary amount of preparation and planning that went into this wine tour.
42 MW’s Visiting Red Willow Vineyard & Chapel on Washington Wine Tour
By the time we finished the tour, every MW – including wine buyers, journalists, educators, and winemakers – was very impressed with not only the wines of Washington, but also the incredible hospitality of every Washingtonian we met.
Following is the schedule for our 5-day wine tour of Washington:
Day One – Seattle
Arrive in Seattle
Check into Willows Lodge Resort and relax
Walk to Columbia Winery to attend walk around tasting of Washington wines and Heavy Appetizer Dinner
Overnight at Willows Lodge Resort
Riesling Master Class at Chateau St. Michelle
Day Two – Seattle to Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Walk to Chateau St. Michelle for lecture on history of Washington wine and master class on Washington Rieslings
Lunch at Januik/Novelty Hill Winery with walk-around tasting of Woodinville wineries
Drive to Suncadia Resort to check into hotel for short rest
Afternoon lecture on geology of Washington vineyards and Washington AVA tasting
Dinner at Swiftwater Cellars with walk-around tasting of Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Overnight at Suncadia Resort
Suncadia Resort in Washington State
Day 3 – Suncadia to Yakima/Red Mountain AVA
Drive to Red Willow Vineyard to visit the oldest syrah vineyard in the state – planted with Guigal cuttings; Syrah tasting in the vineyard
Drive to Precept Canyon River Ranch for lunch and tasting of Yakima wines
Drive to Walter Clore Wine Center for master class on Washington Syrah, followed by tasting of unusual varietals
Check into Richland Courtyard Marriott for quick rest
Drive to Quilceda Creek Winery for vertical tasting of Quilceda Creek at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
Dinner at Col Solare Winery for walk-around tasting of Red Mountain AVA wines and dinner with famous Washington Chef, Tom Douglas
Overnight at Richard Courtyard Marriott
Visiting Col Solare Winery for Washington Wine Tour
Day 4 – Yakima to Walla Walla
Drive to Kiona Winery for master class on Washington Cabernet Sauvignon
Lunch at Kiona Winery – a unique lunch on the sunny terrace featuring a taco truck and champagne.
Drive to Washington State University for lecture on viticulture research and walk-around tasting of Rhone varietals
Check into Marcus Whitman Hotel for short rest
Dinner at Whitehouse Crawford Restaurants at Seven Hills Winery, including walk around tasting of Walla Walla wines
Overnight at Marcus Whitman Hotel
Old Syrah Vine in Red Willows Vineyard, Washington
Day 5 – Walla Walla
Visit Walla Walla Community College for a lecture/tasting on impact of tannins on wine phenolics
Drive to Leonetti Cellars for master class on Washington Merlot and lunch with winemakers
Drive to Ferguson Vineyards to view unique geology and taste L’Ecole wines.
Visit Cayuse Winery for vineyard tour and retrospective tasting of Cayuse wines with French winemaker Christophe Baron
Dinner at Dusted Valley Vintners with walk-around tasting of Walla Walla wines
Return to Marcus Whitman Hotel for overnight stay
Vineyards and Gardens at Leonetti Cellars in Washington
Video on Washington Wines
So based on the above schedule, it was a jam-packed trip with non-stop tastings, vineyard/winery visits, lunches, and dinners. Despite this, we still had time to get together in the late evenings for a nightcap. A very exciting, educational, and memorable trip that allowed everyone to recognize the magnificence of Washington wines. Here is a great video to provide an insight into Washington Wines (click here).
Sunset in the Vineyards of Walla Walla, Washington
The next day, we boarded a bus to Oregon to spend three whirlwind days tasting the wines of Oregon. This trip included driving from Walla Walla, down the Columbia Gorge to Portland, and then onto the Willamette Valley. See later posts for highlights of this trip.
Vertical Tasting of Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon – YES!
(May 2017) Recently I was asked to teach a Master class in Shanghai, China entitled “Top Wines of America.” It was scheduled from 7 to 9pm at the Hyatt Regency, and all 34 seats in the class were filled with young Chinese wine professionals. Most were working in the industry as wine retailers, marketers, or educators. There were also a few importers and winemakers in the class.
Participants in Top US Wine Master Class in Shanghai, China
The hosts of the Wine100 Competition organized the master class and arranged for the wines to be available for the event. They requested that I select 8 highly rated wine brands that were available in the Chinese market, and that could represent the major wine-producing states of California, Washington, Oregon and New York.
My translator was Melody, who had graduated from the WSET Diploma program, so she knew wine quite well. We began with a 30-minute overview of the history and statistics of American wine, and then spent some time describing the climate and soil of the four major wine regions we would be tasting (See Powerpoint below, which includes Chinese translation).
So Domaine Serene Pinot Noir from Oregon ended up edging out the others by a couple of points. Though this wasn’t a scientific poll in anyway, and cannot be generalized, it was interesting to see the results. They reflect an observation that was shared with me before arriving in China: that younger Chinese are beginning to show a penchant for pinot noir, over the more tannic cabernet blends that their parents usually drink. So perhaps we are starting to see a shift in palate preferences….
(May 2017) This past week I flew to Shanghai to participate in the Wine 100 Competition. In its 6th year, the competition includes both Chinese and international wines. This year there were over 900 entries, up from the original 50 entries submitted the first year of the competition.
Organized by David Jiang, a retired McKinsey executive who loves wine, the competition is designed to help Chinese consumers to find quality wine in their market. Each year he brings in several MWs and MSs to round out the cadre of top sommeliers and wine experts in China. All together there were nearly 40 judges, organized into 6 panels each evaluating around 80 wines a day for two days.
My wine judging panel with Director David Jiang (2nd from right)
Wine Trophy Judging
On the third day we did trophy judging, which included tasting all of the gold medal wines from each major country, including Germany, France, Italy, China, USA, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and others. Once those were selected, the winners from that round were re-evaluated to select the sweepstakes red and white wine for the total competition. Finally we re-tasted those two winning wines to select the top trophy wine of the competition. The results were quite interesting:
Top Two American Wines
I was pleased to see that the two wines that won for America included a Chardonnay from Willamette Valley in Oregon, produced by Domaine Serene, and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, produced by William Hill.
Domaine Serene Chardonnay 2014 and William Hill Cabernet 2013
Top Chinese Wine from Ningxia
Though we tasted some amazing Bordeaux blends from the Ningxia and Xianjiang regions of China, the winning wine was made from the Marselan grape, produced by Ho-Lan-Soul winery in Ningxia. It was incredible with concentrated berry and earth flavors, smooth velvety tannins, and a very long finish.
Interestingly, many experts are starting to predict that Marselan will become China’s signature red grape varietal. Marselan is a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, developed in France in the 1960’s and grown mainly in the Langedouc regions and parts of California. It is known for its rich berry profile, deep color, and supple tannins.
Top Chinese Wine from Ho Lan Soul Winery – 2014 Marselan
Sweepstake White and Red Wine
The sweepstake white wine (best white wine of the competition) was a 2008 Riesling from Eden Valley in Barossa Australia, produced by a small winery named Eden Springs. The sweepstake red wine (best red wine of the competition) was a 2015 Shiraz from the Paarl region of South Africa, produced by a winery named BabylonStoren. I had never heard of either of these wineries, but both wines were exquisite with concentrated flavors, complexity, and a very long finish.
Two Sweepstakes Wines – a Riesling and Shiraz
When we voted on the top trophy wine of the competition (blind again), we had to select between these two top wines. The winning wine was the 2015 Shiraz from BabylonStoren Winery.
Bumming Around Shanghai
Since our hotel, the Hyatt Regency – Shanghai Wujiaochang, was located 30 minutes north of the city center, I was only able to get away one evening to have drinks with friends on the Bund. The taxi ride was only $7, and I met Christal and Angelina at the Roosevelt Rooftop Bar overlooking the Bund. The Bund is the chic downtown section of Shanghai located along the winding river, with many trendy shops, restaurants, hotels, and a famous skyline (see below).
The Famous Shanghai Skyline
Afterwards we walked along the Bund for a while, and then I headed back to my hotel. Since I had already spent 4 days as a tourist in Shanghai several years ago, and had seen most of the sights, I wasn’t that disappointed. In addition, the Hyatt Regency Shanghai is a brand new 5-star hotel with marble bathrooms, huge comfortable rooms, and a brand new fitness center with large pool. It is also connected to a multi-level indoor mall, filled with many good restaurants and shops.
While in Shanghai I also taught a master class on American wines, attended other master classes taught by MWs and MSs, and participated in several news media interviews. Altogether I spent six eventful days in Shanghai before flying back home to California.
(November 2016) During the third week of November, Burgundy breaks into a non-stop party mood as visitors from around the world flock to the small town of Beaune to participate in a 4 day wine-tasting feast. This is all centered on the oldest wine auction in the world – the Hospices de Beaune Auction where the proceeds go to medical charities.
The Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, France
I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend the auction as a member of the press. See article I published HERE, and was very impressed with the magnificence and pageantry of the event, which is always held on a Sunday.
Non-Stop Parties and Dinner at 1243 Bourgogne Society Wine Club
By invitation only, wine buyers from around the world usually arrive on Thursday evening and attend non-stop tastings at local wineries, which last all day Friday and Saturday. There is also the magnificent meal hosted by the Chevaliers de Bourgogne at the Clos de Vougeot on Saturday, though I did not attend this.
However, I did receive many invitations to winery tastings, and also enjoyed an elegant evening at the famous 1234 Bourgogne Society Wine Club where I finally had the opportunity to meet Aubert de Villaine. Tall and inspiring, he was every bit the gentleman as we chatted briefly about his work in getting the Unesco World Heritage approval for the Burgundy climats, as well as grape growing in California.
Inside 1234 Bourgogne Society Wine Club
A Most Sophisticated Auction
The auction itself starts on Sunday afternoon, and is located in the small convention center in the middle of Beaune. A red carpet and curtains around the stage make it seems very regal. From my perch in the media booth above the stage, I could look out at the sophisticated crowd and listen to the eloquent French and English accents of the Christie’s auctioneers.
View of Auction Crowd from Media Booth
Outside the windows, there is a surging mass of humanity as large crowds press up again the windows, and also watch the event on giant television screens. When I walked outside the sound of shouting and music filled the air, as everyone enjoyed the event with food and wine purchased from vendors around the square.
I couldn’t help but to compare this auction experience with others I had attended in Napa and Sonoma, where the auctioneers often wear cowboy boots, stomp their feet to get attention, yell, and tell jokes. This was quite the opposite atmosphere, with elegance and ceremony of the utmost importance. When it was complete, they achieved 8.9 million euros.
La Paulee – a 6 Hour Lunch to Celebrate White Burgundy Wine
After days of parties and the Sunday auction, you think things would settle back to normal, but no! Monday is the day of La Paulee, which is held at Chateau Meursault, starting at noon and lasting until late in the night.
Crowds and Band at La Paulee 6 Hour Lunch
I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from Becky Wasserman, and attended with some great people who work on her staff. They were all young and fun to hang out with. Wisely, I booked a taxi to take me there and back, as I had been warned about the non-stop drinking of white Burgundy.
The huge hall of the chateau was filled with long tables, and we had assigned seating for the 5-course meal. A band was playing French folk music on a stage, and the noise, laughter, and singing became louder each hour as people consumed more and more wine. There were multiple verses of the Burgundy wine song with much waving of hands and “la, la, la’s.”
New Friends Singing the Burgundy Wine Song at La Paulee
Everyone was supposed to bring a bottle or more to share, and many winemakers would move up and down the aisles with huge magnums of incredibly expensive white Burgundy and pour it in your glass. It was surreal; a cacophony of sound, color, and amazing wines that I will probably never taste again. The food was also quite good, but that is only to be expected when dining in France.
I feel very grateful that people were kind enough to include me in these famous festivities, and hope that I may have the opportunity to attend again some day.
After several days in Paris, when you begin to long for the beauty of the French countryside, head south to Burgundy. In addition to legendary wine and gourmet food, there is a new reason to visit – the recent UNESCO classification of the ancient vineyards laid out by the monks, called “climats”. This is unique because the climats and tiny wine villages that link them are considered to be a “living cultural landscape.” Visitors can experience this by walking through the vineyards, tasting the wines, and visiting the historical structures that played a role in establishing the Burgundian wine region, dating from the 11th century.
Only an hour and a half by train from Paris’s Gare de Lyon station, Burgundy is easy to travel to and explore. The distance between the capital in Dijon to the end of the Cote d’Or is only a mere 37 miles (60 kilometers). Pick up a rental car at the Dijon train station and you are ready to explore a whole new side of Burgundy. Following is a three day itinerary, from Friday to Sunday, with an overnight stay in Dijon and Beaune.
Day One: FRIDAY – DIJON
Abbey de Citeaux – Morning
After taking a morning train from Paris to Dijon, pick-up a rental car at the station and drive 15 miles south to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Cîteaux, established by the Cistercian monks in 1098. This is where it all started, by the monks who would lay out many of the ancient vineyards and establish winemaking centers. Spend a couple of hours touring the beautiful grounds and ancient cloisters to see how the monks lived. Linger in the library where you can marvel at the beautiful old manuscripts, with colorful paintings and flowing script. Before departing don’t miss the gift shop that sells local honey, cheeses, and herbs.
Lunch with the Dukes of Burgundy
Back in Dijon, park your car in one of the many car parks and walk to Liberation Square in front of the Palaces of the Dukes of Burgundy (Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne). For lunch, select any of the charming side walk cafes spread in a fan shape around the square, and enjoy the water display and sparkling fountains in the center.
After lunch wander over to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, which houses a free museum open until 6pm. Dating from the 14th century, this grand structure is part of the Unesco designation because many of the regulations for the ancient vineyards were established here. The palace is home to the Musee des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts), which describes the history of the Burgundian dukes who were reputed to have more power than the Kings of France. Make sure to see the elaborate tombs of the dukes inside.
Medieval Town Center & Mustard Tasting – Late Afternoon
After checking into a downtown hotel, take an early evening stroll through the pedestrian only shopping area, and enjoy the many quaint shops brimming with local and international items. Don’t forget to appreciate the ornately carved wood-beamed buildings that decorate the heart of Dijon’s city center –one of the few cities in France that still has an intact medieval city center – miraculously sparred from the ravages of two world wars.
Make sure to stop at La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot, hidden in a small shop behind the church. Open until 7pm, they provide free mustard samples, and are the only producer that still uses real Dijon mustard seeds. If times allows, peak into the 12th century Église Notre-Dame with its huge arches, gargoyles and famous Jacquemart clock. The Tourist Office is also near-by, and you can pick-up a copy of the Owl Trail Walking Tour, to visit other historic buildings.
Gourmand Dinner and Night Life of Dijon
The French usually don’t dine until at least 8pm, so the earliest you can reserve a table is 7:30pm. And it is important to make reservations in advance, especially on a Friday night, when venues fill up fast. Consider La Maison des Cariatides, located in a building covered with statues (cariatides), and built in 1603. The chic restaurant with wooden table tops is run by a young chef who just received his first Michelin star for creative local dishes, and a reasonably priced wine list. For a friendly, family-run option tryChez Leon with its quaint décor and rustic regional dishes, such as Andouillette and beef bourguignon.
Since Dijon is a university town, there are plenty of bars and night clubs. For elegant wine tasting try Dr. Wine or L’Assommoir Tome. For music consider the Blue’s Café or Deep Inside Club Rock. For something slightly different, head out to Peniche Cancale, a night club on a barge in the river.
Day Two: SATURDAY – Dijon/Beaune
Farmer’s Market Hopping in Dijon and Beaune – Morning
After breakfast visit two of the most famous Saturday morning farmer’s markets, by wandering through Dijon’s Les Halles Market. One of the largest markets outside of Paris, this one has both and indoor and outdoor sections filled with local cheeses, pates, spices, and much more. Then drive 30 minutes south to Beaune to experience a smaller and more intimate Farmer’s Market (Marche). Located in the middle of the village, this market features regional cheeses, such as Epoisses and Comte, and local meats like jambon persillé (ham with parsley.), as well as many other items, including clothes and souvenirs.
Enjoy a Michelin Star Lunch for a Great Price
Burgundy is home to 30 Michelin star restaurants with some pretty steep prices, but the secret is to book a lunch reservation when the cost is more affordable. In Beaune, try Le Benaton (1 star) where for €34 you will receive a set 3 course menu with several amuse-bouches. Set in a casual toy-box of a restaurant, the chef will probably stop by your table to see how you are enjoying the delicious dishes that arrive like a work of art, such as the Burgundian egg with mushrooms (Oeufs en meurette). For an even more incredible experience, drive 20 minutes south toMaison de Lameloise in Chagny for a 3-star Michelin lunch (€78) you will never forget. White table clothes, flowers, and exquisite oil paintings decorate the room while you are fawned upon by a bevy of tuxedo clad servers who describe each delectable dish in poetic terms. Expect fois gras lollipops as your first amuse-bouche, and then select from dishes featuring Bresse chicken, Charolaise beef, or lamb with figs.
Tour the Hospices de Beaune – Late Afternoon
After your leisurely lunch, check into your Beaune hotel for a rest, but make sure to awake in time to visit the historical Hospices de Beaune. Dating from the 11th century, this Unesco structure is adorned with a multi-colored tile roof and provides a glimpse into the daily life of the sisters who nursed and cooked for thousands of poor and sick throughout the centuries. Open daily until 6:30pm, April thru mid-November.
Brassiere Dinner in Beaune – Evening
After your decadent Michelen star lunch, enjoy a casual dinner at one of the many brassiere restaurants in Beaune where escargot is the specialty. Le Carnot offers beef Bourgogne and steak and frites and has a great wine by the glass selection. Les Popiettes is also a small, relaxed bistro that specializes in Italian-Burgundy fusion dishes. If you’re still in the mood for an upscale restaurant check out Ma Cuisine or 21 Boulevard.
Wine Bar Hopping in Beaune – Late Evening
Rub shoulders with the winemakers at one of Beaune’s many great bars. One of the most popular is Maison du Colombier with intimidate seating inside an old cellar, a changing selection of wines by the glass, and tapas if you’re still hungry. Route 66 is more casual, serving beer, wine and charcuterie platters. If you want something more elegant, the bar at Loiseau des Vignes has a wide selection of wines by the glass.
DAY Three: SUNDAY – Beaune/Dijon
Visit UNESCO Climates in Puligny-Montrachet – Morning
On Sunday morning worship in the vineyard, by making the short 8 mile drive (12 kilometers) to the village of Puligny-Montrachet. Visit the historic climats (vineyard plots) that make up the five Grand Crus of Montrachet. Stroll past the ancient walls that guard each “climate,” and make sure to stop at Chevaliers-Montrachet on the upper slopes for a great photo op and view of the magnificent vineyards that produce the most expensive chardonnay wine in the world.
Hike UNESCO Climates in Vosne-Romanee – Late Morning
Next head north towards Dijon and stop at the tiny village of Vosne-Romanee to hike amongst the world famous “climates” of La Tache, Richebourg, and Echezeaux. Park in the square in front of the church, and then walk the short distance to join the other tourists taking photos in front of the ancient stone cross that marks the Romanee Conti vineyard. This is the home of the most expensive wine in the world, but do not expect to visit Domaine Romanee Conti, because it is closed to visitors. However, if you have time, hike to the top of the hill for an amazing view.
Visit Clos de Vougeot – Where the Monks Tasted the Soil
Then drive or walk through the vineyards to the Unesco World Heritage site of the Clos de Vougeot, open 10am to 5pm on Sundays (rare in France!). Here you can visit the home of the 12th century abbey built by Cistercian monks who tasted the soil to help them determine the differences between the “climates.” Today it is also the home of the Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin, who celebrate Burgundy wine.
Lunch with Napoleon’s Wines
Finding an open restaurant on Sundays can be challenging in France, but consider driving 5 miles up the road to the village of Gevrey Chambertin. Reputed to be the favorite wine of Napoleon, the pinot noir in around this village is rich and velvety. Opt for a casual lunch at Le Clos Lenoir 1623, a quaint restaurant in an old farm house, or Au Clos Napoleon further up the road in Fixin, with its own wine cave. If you want to stay in Vosne-Romanee, head to another winemaker favorite, La Auberge de Petite for traditional Burgundian cuisine such as escargot and rabbit.
Photo Op at Chambertin-Clos de Bèze– Afternoon
On the drive back to the Dijon train station, take the small scenic road, D122 that winds through vineyards between the villages of Chambolle-Musigny and Gevery-Chambertin. Part of the Route des Grand Crus, this section takes you past a smorgasbord of Grand Cru vineyards, including the nine that include the famous name of Chambertin. Make sure to stop at Chambertin Clos de Beze to take a photo, with the well-known stone hut in the background.
If You Go – Hotels
In Dijon, the Grand Hotel La Cloche is located in the down-town pedestrian area and an easy walk to all of the sites and restaurants. In downtown Beaune, consider Hotel de Luxe le Cep, with spacious rooms and gracious service. Or if you want to stay in the vineyards, Les Deux Chevres in Gevrey Chambertin features rooms decorated in French antiques, or stay in a 16th century castle at Chateau de Gilly near Vougeot.
Burgundy has over 3000 wineries (domaines), so if you have more time, consider a cellar tour. However, make sure to book in advance online or at your hotel, because many domains are not open to the public. Some good options that will take advance reservations include: Domaine Drouhin, Domaine d’Ardhuy, Domaine Bouchard Aine et Fils, Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils, Chateau Meursault, Chateau Pommard, and Louis Jadot. No appointment necessary at Domaine Philippe LeClerc and Chateau Corton C., as well as some wine shops that offer tastings and a few small wineries that advertise with the sign, “dégustation,” which means “tasting.” For a more comprehensive list, check out the Beaune Tourism website tasting list.
(Fall 2016) Even with ten years of harvest experience under my belt from stints in Napa, Australia, and my own small vineyard in Sonoma, I was still not prepared for how different harvest time is in Burgundy. While working there this past autumn, I encountered some very unique differences, with Polish pickers, pick-up truck parties, and hovering helicopters, as just a few of the unusual occurrences.
Since I moved to Burgundy at the beginning of September, it was only a few weeks later that harvest erupted into full swing. Suddenly the vineyards were swarming with grape pickers and the ubiquitous white vans that delivered them to and from the fields. Shops, and even some restaurants, would close at odd hours, as their owners headed off to the vines. Parking became challenging, as everyone competed to find a space in the narrow streets of the villages before heading to the vineyards. But above it all, there was a glorious feeling of excitement, trepidation, and hope, as everyone helped to birth the 2016 vintage.
Experiencing this for the first time, over the course of about three weeks, I noticed nine distinct differences between harvest in Burgundy verses California.
1.They Don’t Pick at Night
In warmer regions of the world, such as Napa/Sonoma where I live, most harvest occurs in the very early hours of the morning. This is because it is cooler then, and the wine grapes can be better preserved, and rushed to the winery for crush without sugars rising and acids falling. Near my house in Sonoma, the crews arrive around 2 in the morning and pick until 7am. Large spotlights are set up in the vineyard so the pickers can see better in the dark. Indeed, once a friend of mine visiting from NY showed up on my doorstep late at night exclaiming that alien spaceships had landed in the field. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t a Martian invasion – just night harvest in California.
In Burgundy, however, where the climate is cooler, harvest occurs during the civilized hours of 8am to 5pm, in general. Workers arrive around 7:30 for a harvest breakfast of coffee with croissants, bread, and jam, and then squeeze into the white vans to be driven to the vineyards.
2. They Use a Small Bucket and Pannier, Instead of 40-Pound Lugs
Once in the vineyard, each picker is given a pair of secateurs and a small bucket, and then the supervisor assigns them a specific row to pick. Instructions are provided on only picking healthy bunches, and leaving unripe or rotten bunches on the vine. Once the buckets are full, a “pannier” – usually a strong man; I never saw a woman do this – hoists a large cone-shaped basket on his back and walks down the rows so the pickers can dump their buckets of grapes into his basket. He then takes the full basket to the tractor where, in a move that would cause OSHA inspectors to faint, he climbs a ladder and then leans over to dump the grape bunches into a large plastic bin. People on the tractor sort the bunches again, and throw out any bad ones for additional quality control.
This is quite different from Napa/Sonoma where pickers cut the best bunches and put them in a plastic bin, which when full should not weight more than 40 pounds. The worker then carries the bin to the tractor and dumps into a larger plastic container.
3.Majority of Pickers are from Poland
Though it is not legal in Burgundy to volunteer to work harvest, as a researcher I was allowed to “assist” with harvest at a small domain for two half days. Whereas in America, the most highly skilled pickers are often the migrant workforces from Mexico, in Burgundy, the best pickers are the migrant workforces from Poland.
When I arrived at my appointed domain at 7:30 in the morning, I was introduced to the other 16 workers. Twelve were from Poland, two were from France, one was a visiting winemaker from Argentina, and another person was from the UK. I was the only American.
Once we arrived in the vineyard and I was given my assigned row, I was dismayed to see how quickly I feel behind the others. To my surprise, the fastest and best picker was a 72 year old woman from Poland who had been working the Burgundy harvest for 35 years. She had sparkling blue eyes, fuzzy blond hair, and a huge smile in a suntanned face filled with appealing wrinkles. Though she didn’t speak any English, she exuded happiness and energy. I immediately felt drawn to her warmth, and so did everyone else, who appeared to know her well.
All around me, people chattered in Polish, while I concentrated on trying to find grape bunches in a village level pinot noir vineyard that had been decimated by the frost. I was amazed at how small the crop was.
4. Wine and Brie Break at 9:30
After picking for an hour and a half, a break was called and everyone crowded around the tractor with its plastic bins brimming with grapes. To my utter surprise, unlabeled bottles of pinot noir wine from the domain were opened and everyone passed the bottles around. No cups were in sight, and everyone was drinking directly from the bottle.
When it finally reached me, I saw many eyes upon me. Would I drink from the bottle or not? Throwing caution to the wind, and remembering that alcohol killed most germs, I hosted the bottle to my lips and took a big swig of pinot noir at 9:30 in the morning. After all, “when in Burgundy, enjoy Burgundy!”
Then a large bag of sliced French baguettes with thick slices of brie was passed around. Everyone munched on these, swigging more wine to wash it down. Then after 15 minutes, it was back to the vineyard. The only issue for me is there was no bathroom break, and I didn’t see the portable outhouses that are set up for harvest in the vineyards of California. Reminder to self – do not drink so much coffee before harvest in Burgundy.
5.Backbreaking and Knee Needling Work
The reason I only worked two half days harvesting in Burgundy (even though I was invited to work two whole days) was because by noon I could barely stand up straight or walk. Whereas in California our vines are pruned so the grape bunches are waist level or higher, in Burgundy the vines are very small and near the ground. Many of the grape bunches are dangling just above the limestone studded earth.
There are only two options to pick – either bend over and strain your back, or squat down to the ground until your knees and thighs are screaming. I vacillated back and forth between these two methods, but could only last until noon each day. The following days my muscles were so sore, it was hard to walk without lots of Ibuprofen. So much for my zumba classes and workout at home.
6.Two Hour Lunches and Harvest Dinner Every Night
When talking to the Polish pickers who could speak English, they told me that one of the best aspects of working harvest in Burgundy were the meals. Not only did they receive unlimited free wine to drink, but also they were served 3 meals per day – and the food was good. Huge lunches and dinners, that usually the women of the domain would spend days preparing.
After lunch, which included wine, most workers would take a nap on the lawn, before grabbing their buckets to head back to the vines. That evening, they had another scrumptious dinner to look forward to, and most nights it turned into a small party. Several of the Polish workers told me they considered harvest in Burgundy to be their vacation each year.
7.Housing or Tents Mandatory
Under French law, harvest workers must be provided with housing or a place to pitch their tents. If they chose tents, the domain must also provide showers and toilets. In California, we are starting to make progress on this issue, with some wineries offering harvest housing, but not all. We still have some way to go to catch up with the more hospitable system in France.
When I asked how it worked, I was told that if workers elected to stay in their own tent, they were paid around 11 -12 euros per hour plus meals. If they decided to stay in housing provided by the domain, they were paid around 9-10 euros per hour plus meals, since the house was part of their wages. Though hourly wages for harvest workers in California are usually higher than this, we don’t often provide the housing and meal benefits that France does.
Another major difference with harvest in Burgundy is the helicopters that hover over the vineyards counting the number of workers. Their purpose is to insure that no one is hiring illegal workers, or using more workers than approved. The opportunity to work harvest is a special one, and requires much paperwork to be completed by the domain. If a winery is caught using the wrong number of workers, they may be fined.
9.Parties, Music and Celebration
Though we usually have big harvest parties in California at each winery when harvest is complete, it seems that there are parties every evening during harvest in Burgundy. It is possible that this is due to the wonderful dinners and wine that are provided each night after picking
However, even more amazing for me to see and hear were the pick-up truck parties and bands that wove through the tiny village roads with horns honking and workers cheering when harvest was complete. I ended up behind more than one truck complete with a piano, accordion, and workers singing with loud abandon. It was impossible not to smile and feel the sheer joy and exuberance that pervaded the air as everyone celebrated the birth of a new wine vintage in Burgundy.
Due to its long history as a top growing wine region for chardonnay and pinot noir, Burgundy is obviously a place where many tourists want to go winetasting. However, unlike many New World wine locations, such as Napa and Sonoma, it is not always possible to drop by a winery to taste wine without an appointment. There are some exceptions, with more domains opening cellar door operations in the past several years, but in general, it is necessary to do some advance planning.
Wine Tasting at Chateau Mersault
According to the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB), there are 3890 wine producers in the region, along with 17 cooperatives, and 282 wine merchants. Despite these impressive numbers (Napa and Sonoma only have 1000 wineries between the two regions), many of Burgundy’s domains are tiny family operations, with wine that is allocated to distributors and exporters. This means they usually do not have much wine left over to sell to the casual tourist, and during years when Mother Nature decimates the vineyards with frost or hail, there is even less wine. However, it is always possible to go winetasting in Burgundy, as long as you have clear expectations and do a little advance planning.
Infographic on Burgundy Wine Statistics. Source: BIVB
Don’t Forget Opening Hours in France
I’ve always admired how the French take time to enjoy a leisurely lunch and/or just take time to relax and spend quality time with family and friends. However this means that many shops and domains are closed everyday between noon and 2pm and all day on Sundays. For Americans who are used to going winetasting any day of the week, including Sundays and over lunch, this can be a bit surprising. Again, this is why advance planning is necessary.
Following are six tips for successful winetasting in Burgundy:
Don’t Expect to Get into the Top Domains without Contacts and Prayer
Due to the high quality and scarcity of its wines, the most famous domains of Burgundy dominate rankings in the top 50 most expensive wines in the world. A recent glance at Winesearcher’s list shows Burgundy wines hold 68% of the slots, with prices ranging from $1200 to $50,000 per bottle. Therefore do not expect to visit theses wineries, with names like Domaine Leroy or Domaine Romanee Conti, unless you have good connections with their importers or known someone who can make an introduction for you. Saying a prayer to St. Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers, also couldn’t hurt.
Highly Allocated Wines from Domaine Romanee Conti
Consider Hiring a Wine Tour Operator
There are a variety of reputable wine tour companies located in Beaune, Dijon and other locations that will schedule a private tour for a fee. Often this includes tastings of Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, as well as lunch someplace along the way. See a couple of options HERE and HERE. The advantage of this method is that you don’t have to worry about driving and getting lost on the tiny back roads of Burgundy (though this can be fun too!)
Stop by the Friendly Burgundy Tourist Offices
One of my favorite aspects of France is the great network of Tourist Offices they have in every major town and some smaller villages. Just stop by and ask for a map, as well as information on which wineries are open for drop-in tastings. Though they may not be the most famous domains, they will be hospitable and open to tourists. Some may charge a tasting fee, whereas others will not. It is usually polite to buy a few bottles of wine if they have some available. Beaune, Dijon, Chablis, Chalon Sur Saone, Macon, Nuits St. George, and even tiny Gevery-Chambertin, all have tourist offices to help with tastings.
Entrance to Small Family Winery in Gevery-Chambertin, Next to Tourist Office
Watch for “Dégustation and Vente” Signs
As you drive through the small villages of Burgundy, keep an eye out for signs advertising “Degustation and Vente.” This means wine tasting and sales are available. The location may be a domain or a wine shop, and you may be charged a small tasting fee, but usually it can be a wonderful experience. Farmer’s markets will usually have a few booths where it is possible to taste local wine as well.
Tasting Room Sign for Domaine Jean Chartron in Puligny-Montrachet
Schedule Tastings and Tours Online
Many of the larger domains, chateaux, and negotiants now offer the opportunity to sign up for advance tasting and tours online. Click HERE for a recent list, or go directly to the website of the winery to see if they offer this service. Though the prices are often the same or higher than Napa/Sonoma, the experience is usually worth the time, and often includes an interesting tour of a chateau and cellar. Some highly rated tours include Domaine Drouhin in Beaune, and Chateau Pommard and Chateau Meursault, about ten minutes drive south of the town. Other well-known establishments include Domaine Bouchard Aine et Fils, Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine d’Ardhuy, Veuve Ambal and L’Imaginarium.
Winetasting at Veuve Ambal in Beaune
Don’t Just Focus on the Cote d’Or
Though the Cote d’Or region near Beaune is considered to be the heart of Burgundy where the majority of the very famous domains are located, there are hundreds of excellent wineries in other regions of Burgundy as well. Drive one hour north of Dijon to the town of Chablis where you will find many exceptional wineries, along with the famous Chablisienne cooperative, where you can taste village level to Grand Cru wines.
South of Beaune is the Cote Chalonnaise and Macon regions, filled with charming villages, beautiful scenery and friendly winemakers. Two hours south is the region of Beaujolais that is still technically part of Burgundy, though they focus on the gamay grape more than pinot noir. However Beaujolais is definitely worth a visit with beautiful castles, friendly towns, and exquisite wines that are a great value. Though many people only know this region for its fruity Nouveau Beaujolais, they also make Cru wines with great concentration, complexity, and the ability to age for decades. Furthermore, Beaujolais is only 30 minutes north of Lyon, the gastromic capital of France, where you can dine at world famous restaurants.
Gourmet Food of France at Michelin 3 Star Restaurant Lameloise
Enjoy a Lazy Sunday
If you happen to find yourself in Burgundy on a Sunday, plan to relax and take some time to enjoy the moment, because very few establishments are open. Consider taking a hike through the vineyards in the morning, and then make a reservation for a long lazy lunch with wine, followed by a restful nap. Now that’s living the good life!
Friends Hiking in the Vineyards Near Romanee Conti