California, Road Trip, Wine/Cocktails

Go Big or Stay Home??

Go big or stay home … that’s a saying we use often when setting our own personal goals. But as we learned on our recent California wine trip, “going big” isn’t always the best way to go.

close up of wine in a glass.
A refreshing glass of wine on a warm summer day.

We live in Arizona, which has a burgeoning wine industry. Most wineries in the state are fairly small. We moved here from Virginia, home to more than 300 wineries; some big and some small. They pale in comparison, however, to California, the mother of U.S. wine making. I think it’s fair to say that even the new wineries there have a polish. That could be due to the fact that next door, there’s likely a winery that’s been operating successfully for decades. Our trip brought to new light the differences between the powerhouses and the start-ups.*

The personalized tasting experience often includes a little gift.

In Napa Valley, some of the biggest names in the wine industry were small three decades ago (which was the last time Greg visited … ouch!). During COVID, they are open but require reservations for tastings and have taken the opportunity to truly personalize the tasting experience. Cakebread is no exception. We arrived for our reservation and met “Jo.” 

In the past, a typical tasting involved bellying up to a bar, having a very busy winetender (I made that up … it’s like a bartender who only pours wine) pour sips of different wines in a glass and breeze through a well-rehearsed script about that particular wine, “it has hints of apricot with floral notes and is delicious chilled on a hot summer day.” 

comfy couches in a garden setting
Comfy couches, like these at Cakebread, have replaced the “belly up to the bar” tasting style.

Not so anymore! Jo strolled us out to a beautiful, shady spot on the patio while she shared a little of the story of Cakebread Cellars. We asked a little about the challenges of being closed during the pandemic. She had us laughing when she told us about trying to lend a hand with the estate’s stunning gardens and her “black thumb.” 

We sipped the wines and felt like we’d made a new friend! This nearly 50-year-old powerhouse produces about 200,000 cases a year and offers its wines nationwide, but the experience made us feel like we had been welcomed into a private backyard for a visit, not a paid tasting.

wine glass on table with pond in background
TH Estate features a tasting near a small pond.

Later on our trip in Paso Robles, we found ourselves pulling into the gravel parking lot at TH Estate Wines and wandering up to a barn/warehouse where we met Brandon (we think it was Brandon, we forgot to write it down!). He led us to a bar-height table next to a quaint man-made pond for our tasting. It was one of only three tasting tables.

page showing tasting flight wines
A breeze meant we had to anchor our tasting guide.

A good breeze was blowing, so Brandon ran to another table set up for a future tasting, just as the tasting menu took flight. We laughed and helped him chase it down. Brandon offered us chairs. We decided standing would be fun. This visit was like going to your friend’s backyard. It was casual! It felt like something you could set up and try on your own … well, IF you owned your own vineyard and had a staff to help you pick the grapes and a winemaker to help you create your own wine! The simplicity of the setting and rolling hills of vines surrounding the winery punctuated the quality of one-on-one service we received. 

Greg chats about wine and football at TH Estate.

We asked about the name “TH Estate.”  TH, it turns out, is football great Terry Hoage. He and his wife bought the estate in 2004 and are focused on traditional winemaking. By winery standards it’s small, just 2,500 cases a year. The wines were great. The setting was charming and we had a great time. Another winery – another new friend!

By contrast, TH Estate was world’s more refined than the barn-based winery we once visited in Virginia. That time we stood in an actual livestock barn with a section partitioned off with hanging blue tarps. Wines were displayed on the studs of the barn’s unfinished walls and the floor was dirt. It was early spring, so we had to wear coats to fend off the cold. We still laugh about that one.

wine flight carafes and glasses set up for a tasting.
Tastings come in all shapes and sizes.

Like wineries, wine drinkers come in all shapes, sizes and experience levels. I’d like to think I’m somewhere between a teenager and 20-something in terms of tasting experience. Greg’s been at it a lot longer. He knows the terms and many of the nuances I’m still learning. But we keep trying new wines. We keep driving up to the barns and gravel parking lots. Sure … we know what we like, but it’s fun to find new wines and meet new people. 

We’ve discovered the smaller places can be well worth the stop .. at least when it comes to wine.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Take a chance on a newbie, you may be pleasantly surprised.

© The World A to Z, LLC 2020 — Unless otherwise indicated, no compensation was received for this blog.

*For the record, nowhere in this discussion will we mention the huge name brands, the ones that can afford major television advertising. Many produce great wines, but our focus is on visiting wineries and enjoying the experience.

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