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Aug 27, 2008 10:44 AM

Wineries that aren't about the wine

When I first started visiting wineries 30 years ago in Napa and Sonoma, the tasting rooms were just tasting rooms. Sometimes they'd have a few souvenirs, such as wine books or corkscrews, some had informal picnic areas or did a little side business hosting weddings or other events, but the business was really all about wine.

Over the years, those side businesses have evolved to be the primary business at some places. V. Sattui, for example, is a deli first and a winery second. Viansa was built to be primarily a deli and gift shop, and doesn't seem to be competing in the wine business any more. Ledson is a blatant tourist trap that charges for tours if its phony "castle".

Any other places like this to avoid?

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  1. Even 30 years ago, there was already a touristic aspect to wine tasting:
    Sterling made decent wines, but every visitor remembered the gondola
    ride up to the winery and the view over the valley. Visitors at Domaine
    Chandon often came for the brunch. So what's new really? This is just
    wine people trying to be smart business persons.

    15 Replies
    1. re: bclevy

      Sterling and Chandon are in the wine business. You'll find their wines in most any well-stocked wine shop in California.

      I've never seen a bottle of Ledson or V. Sattui in a wine shop. Viansa was in the wine business for a while, but got out maybe ten years ago.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Mon dieux, I thought you were exaggerating but on wine-searcher there are NO retailers of Ledson other than ... Ledson. There is one retailer of Sattui, Hi-Time Wines, that appears to be a real retailer, other than a couple random older bottles on auction.

        As for Ledson, their website does say they sell exclusively through the winery (though they do list about a half dozen CA restaurants as well). But I wonder this - if it's only about the castle and not about the wine, why on earth do they produce so many varietals and bottlings? I counted well in excess of 50 current releases on their website including some oddballs (Petit Verdot anyone?) and some pretty recognizable single-vineyard bottlings (Feeney Ranch zin). Several of their wines have garnered decent or better Spectator reviews, for whatever that's worth.

        I've never had their wines - anyone else?

        1. re: Frodnesor

          Steve Ledson is rich, so he may well make many of those wines to please himself.

          Obscure varietals face less competition in tastings, so they might have a better shot at winning medals, which are probably useful for promoting their tourist business.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            I have visited Ledson, and their wines are all right. They
            are far from the only ones who make a stand alone Petit
            Verdot-- ZD Wines also does, and it is a pretty good wine, IMO.
            Many other wineries sell only their wines at the winery or
            through a wine club: for example Stryker Sonoma in Alexander Valley.
            In fact if you can get away with it, this is probably the preferred way
            of selling wine, since margins are much higher that way.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              Sattui sells ONLY at the winery. He sells a TINY amount of wine at Hi-Time because it's in Orange Co., and that enables Darryl to enter his wines in the Orange Co. (California) Fair.

              1. re: Frodnesor

                Unfortunately, people WANT the fake reality of Las Vegas, or Disney. It is no longer about the wines in too many places.

                I'd rather spend a rainy Feb day with the winery dog, and an eager tasting room person, than any Disneyesque experience, but that is just me. I freely admit that I am in the minority. For me, it's all about the wine and nothing more.


              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                Be careful with that assumption. Many wineries are in the direct to consumer business and do not sell through retailers due to the complicated 3+ tiered distribution system in the US.

                V. Sattui has been in the wine business for over 20 years and makes many award winners. Not my style and definately on the tour map, but they are certainly a winery to be reckoned with. The deli was always there as an homage to their Italian heritage.

                Many elite wineries are only available through the winery, and are, in fact, not even open to the public so not being in a grocery chain does not mean they are only in it for the tour buses.

                Of course, that is a curse of going to the Disneyland-eque Napa Valley, but just my 2 cents.

                1. re: Vinquire

                  Vinquire, I'm going to disagree with you a little -- not entirely.

                  I have never believed in my many years of living in Napa Valley that Sattui's deli was in any way an homage to Sattui's Italian ancestry. It is simply a fortuitously located business enterprise that was begun before stricter zoning laws disallowed subsequent winery food operations. It is not about the wine, though Sattui serves wine.

                  However, I do believe Sattui's Castello di Amorosa is a bit of an homage to his Italian ancestry, though a misinformed and misguided one. The castle does look fairly autentico, but the wines are horrid -- nearly all of them, and I have tasted through the entire line. The admission price is steep, and the staff is unskilled about hospitality and winemaking. This enterprise is really about the castle and not the wine. If it were about the wine, the wines would be better. It is simply a touristy, money-making operation with a castle that resembles many in Italy.

                  I somewhat agree with Robert -- that certain wineries are not about the wine, but mainly "fronts" for stores and knickknacks, or in the case of Sattui, deli food. Viansa and Roche also come to mind. There are others.

                  I will also share with you that I, along with many other persons who have judged wines at competitions, have openly discussed our suspicions of Sattui's award-winning wines. The wines that win awards don't seem to ever be available at the winery. They are produced in "limited" quantities.
                  If I were a nefarious winery owner, in need of glory and awards and validation, it would be very easy for me to purchase really outstanding wines and pour them into my own bottles, cork the bottles and send them off to a competition as my own. I'm not saying that Sattui has done this, only that it is quite easy to do.

                  I agree with you that the lack of wine at retail stores isn't indicative of a winery that isn't about the wine. Many wineries make such beautiful wines or wines that are in such demand (those two things aren't necessarily related), that they need and have no retail operation or distribution. So the idea that a winery's wines are not sold outside the winery doesn't always mean the winery is not focused on wine. It could mean that they are so focused on wine that their efforts shine and that they need focus on nothing else.

                  Sterling Winery seems governed more by the aggressive profit-making goals of its large corporate owner than by the goal of making good wine. I am saddened by this -- the wines easily could be better, and such great potential is lost along with profits.

                  Vinquire, I also believe you have mischaracterized Napa Valley as Disneyland-esque. While there are touches of that -- Sutter Home and Sterling are two examples -- when a speaker has that overall view, it tells me that he has visited Napa Valley on only a superficial level, most probably staying only on its major thoroughfare -- Highway 29 -- and not venturing down the smaller roads where the vast vineyards demonstrate that Agriculture obviously rules the valley. Also down those smaller roads: wineries for whom quality winemaking is the only goal, and who abhor any manufactured hype or hoopla or pretensions of glamor.

                  1. re: maria lorraine


                    OK, we agree again. The Disneyesque reference was also used by me later on. I commented before reading all replies, as is my usual MO. I find this "aspect" in all areas of CA, not just Napa and Sonoma. It seems to be a business plan that works.

                    I go for the wines, and little else. I get to go to LV and various Disney properties all too often to seek these out elsewhere.

                    There are a few exceptions (Kendall-Jackson come directly to mind), where there is more than the fake chateau, or even the wines, but I usually pass on the places with large bus parking areas. That is just not my style. I'd rather seek out places like Milat, also on 29, and spend an afternoon talking to David Duckhorn about the wines, maybe meeting up with on of the Milat brothers, and petting the dog at the door, than going for the prime places. I have few negative feelings about groups of tourists, except that they are usually not there for the wines, only "free" wines, and the Napa, or Sonoma, or Amador experience. So long as they give me a spot at the tasting counter, and are not too loud, I can easily ignore them.

                    Years ago, I returned to St. Clement, before they were bought by Beringer Blass. I'd been there on one of those cold, rainy Feb days, only a few months before. I now brought my wife, and it was in the Summer. The tasting room was filled and there was a group, probably a bachlorette party, that was screaming and causing a ruckus. The lady pouring recognized me, and motioned me forward past the throngs. I intorduced my wife, and she found some "special wines," just for us. We conversed for a bit, and in exasperation, she turned to the big group saying, "ladies, hold it down, we're talking about wines here!" Silence ensued and soon the group left. We proceeded to spend a few hours with this nice lady and tasted some great wines along the way. When I handed her my AMEX card, she asked, "what is that for? This is about the wines. There is no charge for that." The entire afternoon was comp'ed. This has been my experience in most of Napa, in the wineries that I stop in to taste. My AMEX is not welcome and not needed, regardless of what might be printed on the wall.

                    Now, none of these places has a tram, a log-flume or any other sort of ride, or attraction. They are about the wines.

                    I now wonder how different St. Clement is today. I hope to get back this Feb, and pray for a cold, rainy day, when I am the only vehicle on 29, save for the tractors and an occasional truck.

                    Maybe this is one reason that I often frequent places that are by appointment only. I want to talk about the wines and learn, and experience. If I want LV, or Disney, I get there too often. Give me the winery dog, and a serious tasting room person and I am happy.


                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      OK so I never said Sattui wasn't a cash cow, just that it wasn't started that way. The Castello never would have existed if it wasn't for the early success of Sattui.

                      I agree completely on the awards, however I don't think this is limited to Sattui. I think awards have been diluted by the massive amounts of this medal and that medal, and that the average consumer doesn't know the Orange County Fair vs. the Grocery Chain Gold. This causes all awards to lose credibility for the uneducated consumer, sadly.

                      There are indeed several purpose built "tourist destinatations" in the Napa / Sonoma area, and Viansa was built as such. However, they used to produce decent wine if you could get past the tour buses. Sadly, now that the Sebastianis don't own it any longer, this has changed and more tour buses are showing up, with the Jacuzzi (great wine terrible structure) building at the foot of the drive.

                      You are correct in that the less travelled roads in Napa are less Disney-esque, but let's be realistic. How many people traveling to Napa really visit those areas, and actually venture off 29? Not many. Certainly no one that is looking at Napa in the back of a travel magazine. We, as knowledgeable consumers. are aware of the wonders of the Silverado Trail and small roads between Mt St Helena and Kenwood. Joe Midwest is not. I am not sure that this is a bad thing, as if these ares were as well publicized as the main drag, they would be equally overrun. Don't get me wrong, I take issue with any major tourist trap, not just Napa.

                      1. re: Vinquire

                        >>> OK so I never said Sattui wasn't a cash cow, just that it wasn't started that way. <<<

                        Uh -- yes it was . . .

                        1. re: Vinquire


                          I have not problem with a winery being a tourist destination. That is just not MY thing, and I avoid it, like the plague. I go for the wine.

                          Same for Las Vegas. I do not care about the gimmickry facades and interiors. The only reason that I go is for the food AND the wine. The restaurants and wine bars could just as well be in St. Louis for me. Now, for oh so many, they need the Las Vegas experience, and I do not begrudge them this. I just do not ascribe to it, personally.

                          Since I am not a tour director, I can ignore what others are seeking in the "wine country," except that I might wish to avoid their busses.


                    2. re: Vinquire

                      Darryl's winery is the biggest cash cow in the Valley. It's ALL about the deli . . .

                    3. re: Robert Lauriston

                      <Viansa was in the wine business for a while, but got out maybe ten years ago.> Viansa was maybe a different situation. About 10 years ago, the founders' son died suddenly, and the whole family went into a tailspin. Then the couple divorced, after the male half of the pair left his wife (also the Viansa winery chef, who developed the recipes for many of the products they still sell at the winery) for their Marketing Director. The wife decided she was ready to retire, anyway, and he couldn't show his face around there again.... The kids sold Viansa maybe 5 years ago. I think one of them still works there. I have lost touch with the wife, who was a friend and colleague. It's a really sad story.

                      They used to make some pretty nice Sonoma versions of Italian varietals.

                      1. re: ChefJune

                        Interesting and thank you for the insight. I was never familiar with them, or their wines. A local radio personality pushed them and rated their wines highly. (She hosted several food-oriented programs, plus did a drive-time show.) I never really ran across them, but then my time is usually well-scripted, when I'm there. Relatives did come back and rave about the place, and also the wines. I'd guess that this was five years ago, but could be wrong by a year, or two. I had recommended several "by appointment only" places and offered to pull some strings. They declined, found Viansa on their own, and loved it. Probably just as Vinquire alludes.

                        Sad story, but thanks for sharing it.


                  2. I think Sattui is the most egregious example of what you're describing and I do wonder a bit about some of the things I find in winery tasting rooms sometimes. On the other hand, I really enjoy visiting the tasting room at Franciscan Estates (you can also taste and buy wines from other wineries in Constellation's Icon Group there). But............ one of the nicest sweaters I own (one that gets compliments all the time) I bought in the Franciscan tasting room on one visit a couple of years ago. Sweaters in a tasting room??????????????? ...... go figure.

                    1. Markham Vineyards is in the wine business, although their tasting room is overloaded with knicknacks even more than most I have seen including custom bottles with the Rolling Stones logo, Madonna, etc. on them. Personally I was very unimpressed with the wines and figured gimmicks were all they had going for them. But not the same degree as V. Sattui, though.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: jonasblank

                        The Greenwood Ridge tasting room features the largest (perhaps only) collection of wine cans in the world. They've made some good wines.


                        1. re: jonasblank

                          I do agree about Markham. Fortunately, I know Brian from many events around the country. When the tourists get too deep, I ask if he's on the property, and usually get ushered to a quiet area for a "private" tasting. If he's there, and I'm alone, he always inquires about my lovely wife. Even when I've hosted another young lady to one of his events, he pulls me aside and whispers about my wife. I always assure him that she knows well, that I have a "date" for that event, as she's busy. I can overlook the tourist aspect of that tasting room, and the crowds, just to see what Brian is up to that vintage.


                        2. Does it really matter that a winery doesn't sell its wines through the distribution system and have a spot on a reailter's shelf? As if that somehow makes the winery in the "wine business."

                          So if I go on the train ride at Champagne Mercier does that mean the train is the attraction and not the wine that sells in the UK but is almost impossible to find in the US? If I go to Cahmpagne Pommery to look at the huge vat artifact, does that someone lessen the quality of their Cuvee Louise? Because when I tour Moet et Chandon and find the only way out is through the gift shop, do I wonder what business they are in? If, instead of walking up to the garage at Gunderloch, I go instead to Muller-Catoir and have to tour the lovely building and sit in the opulent tasting room, is that Haardter Burgergarten no longer made by someone not in the wine business? At J, because they do the food pairing thing as part of their wine tasting, are they not in the wine business with both feet?

                          There's enough diversity in wine consumers, including those who consume mainly when they drive Route 29 or the Sonoma Highway.

                          9 Replies
                          1. re: Brad Ballinger

                            It doesn't matter how the winery sells its wines, so long as knowledgeable consumers buy them.

                            If the main attraction of a "winery" is a gift shop or deli, and they sell most of their wine to wine-clueless tourists, they can get away with making crappy wine, like V. Sattui and Viansa.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Do the people who purchase the wine and enjoy it on the premises with the deli fare think it's crappy?

                              1. re: Brad Ballinger

                                Wine lovers who've been dragged to the place by wine-clueless friends or relatives do.

                                My main point in starting this topic is to avoid ending up in that situation.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Even this wine lover, who has been to V. Sattui and doesn't really care for their wines, can take a bullet for friends who want to just have the experience. I'm ugessing you can, too. So long as we don't have to do it very often. :o)

                                  1. re: Brad Ballinger

                                    Why should I when there are so many alternatives?

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Because sometimes it's just not about the wine.

                                      1. re: Brad Ballinger

                                        Going to a winery is always in part about the wine, and given the selection there's no reason not to pick one with good wine. As the Chowhound FAQ says, "Chowhounds hate to ingest anything undelicious. They won't hesitate to go far, far out of their way for even slightly better."

                                        This actually came up when I asked for recommendations for a good winery with a wheelchair-accessible picnic area, and the first three responses were for V. Sattui, Ledson, and Viansa. There's always Chateau St. Jean.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Robert, I do agree with you. In 25 years of being a wine fiend, however, I've learned that there will always be good wine. And if my friends want to enjoy something that I wouldn't pick, I'll make the diecision on the side of friendship over wine. Every time.

                                          I was at V. Sattui with six friends. They all wanted to have a picnic lunch there. Should I have said, "No, the wine sucks"? Should I have said, "Let's see if we can bring in different wine"? I was at Ledson with another couple who were celebrating their anniversary and she wanted to see the property. Do I say, "Well, okay. But then let's leave quick to go drink the wine at Kenwood"?

                                          If I'm on Route 29, or the Silverado Trail, or the Sonoma Highway, or the Champagne Road, or the Weinstrasse, or or or all by myslef (and I have been), then it's all about me and the wine.

                                          1. re: Brad Ballinger

                                            My friends all love food and wine so there's no conflict.

                          2. Robert,

                            First, nice to see you posting. I have missed your comments.

                            Next, too many are bookstore or delis, or other. I think that the reason is that many want this. They want to purchase a "piece of Napa," or Sonoma or the Sierra Foothills.

                            Will never forget a trip to Maryvale (on a "wine cruise") and after a nice lunch in their cave, the group was brought up to the "store." The staff hawked the latest geegaws, and I had to go off to the side to find someone to actually pour wine. Disney mastered the practice of ending every attraction in a gift shop. The wineries have realized how much the tourists want, and expect this. Tasting rooms, just for wine, are not profit centers.

                            Remember, most folk stopping in are doing so more for the "experience," than to actually taste the wines.

                            Though I am not in the business, it is the wine that draws me, and I am trying to taste everything, so I can better decide what to purchase. Now, I have picked up a couple of cookbooks, that are not on Amazon, and a cute towell from Ravenswood, that went well in my kitchen, but it's still about the wine. I know that many of the tasting room folk would rather talk, and share their knowledge of the wines, than ring up sales of foil-cutters and stoppers. Still, for the winery, it is about keeping those doors open and catering to the masses that arrive. Get them aside and they'll pour all sorts of "library" wines, if one just appreciates them and is interested in learning about their grapes and their wines.

                            Blame the success of Disney for this change.

                            Again, nice to see you posting here!


                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Chateau St Jean and Sebastiani in Sonoma come to mind when I think of winery gift shops. Both are stocked like a Cracker Barrel gift shop or the end of a Disney ride. Markham at least has their original artwork gallery...

                              1. re: orlwine

                                Chateau St. Jean makes some good wines, and a few excellent ones, though maybe not as many as they once did. I miss their late-harvest Gew├╝rztraminers. Nice place for a picnic if the wasps aren't too bad.