Our Incredible First Experience with San Diego's Wine Xplorer

Sally and I dined at a winery, in a beautiful room with 30 guests seated at a long table. An award-winning chef prepared a delicious six course meal. Each course was expertly paired with a different wine, and the winemaker talked about her wines as they were served. An opera singer entertained us throughout the evening.

It was hard to believe we were in Escondido.

Posted on January 27, 2019 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

How to Host an Easy Wine and Beer Pairing Party

It's always fun to experiment with wine pairings. There are equally endless pairing opportunities with beer, too!

So we decided to take things up a notch and host a pairing party. We gave it a "Better Together" theme to acknowledge both the pairings and the friends we were bringing together.

Here's our step-by-step guide so you can host your own wine and beer shindig.

Posted on May 18, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

First Impression: Wineries in Fallbrook

Our terrible photography skills are on display outside The Rib Shack in Fallbrook.

It started with a quest for barbecue. 

Our friends Alisa and Ken told us about a great place in Fallbrook called The Rib Shack. Another couple we're friends with, Karin and Jeff, recently went there too and confirmed it was legit.

So Sally and I decided to take a Sunday drive to Fallbrook for some barbecue. Fallbrook is an unincorporated community in northern San Diego County, so we thought it might make for a nice ride. And hey, while we were up there, why not check out a few wineries?

First, we're happy to report the barbecue at The Rib Shack is outstanding. Sally is a Texan with a pretty high barbecue standard, and she enthusiastically declared it barbecue she could stand behind.

On to the wine.

There are only a few wineries that are open for public tastings on the weekend. (A few others do tastings by appointment only.) Our new friend, Marcia, at Toasted Oak Winery gave us this cool hand drawn "Almost a Wine Trail" map of wineries that are open for walk-in tastings on the weekend. Most are open 12pm-5pm.

Fallbrook Almost a Wine Trail Map

You can download a PDF of the map here. The Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce also has a more extensive list of wineries available on its website. 


Toasted Oak Winery

There's a cool story behind the name. The entire property was burned by the 2007 Rice Canyon Fire and only one oak tree survived. That's the toasted oak you see here.

The surviving oak tree at Toasted Oak Winery.

Owners Marcia and Roger bought the property in 2008, but just opened their tasting room in April, 2017. The winery consists of two acres and they produce approximately 200 cases per year.

Marcia was our host in the tasting room and she was a lot of fun! It's clear that she enjoys sharing wine, just like us.

One thing I really appreciated is Marcia didn't try to give us tasting notes before we actually tried the wine. (Huge pet peeve!) In fact, she asked us what tastes and smells we were getting from the wines and compared them to her own notes. That's truly the way to taste wine since there's no right answer, and it made for a great experience.

We also enjoyed listening to Marcia's stories about running a small winery. She explained how the high price of oak barrels has made them rethink their oak program and even consider using flex tanks for future vintages in an effort to keep costs down. Winemakers will often add barrel staves or oak chips to impart oak flavor despite not using oak barrels.

Sally and I generally aren't fans of this winemaking style, but you can easily understand why a winemaker would choose to do this. The wines were all priced at either $25 or $28 per bottle and its hard to keep those price points at a small production winery.

It was also fun to hear how she and Roger navigated a lot of ups and downs that come with running a small winery, such as a bought of a grape fungus called botrytis that wiped out 75 percent of their crop one year and the scare of a big fire last fall.

This winery is definitely worth a visit if you decide to tour the region!


Estate d'Iacobelli Vineyards and Winery

This experience could not have been more different than our visit to Toasted Oak Winery. 

Our host didn't know much about the wines she was pouring and didn't seem to care. We tried asking a few questions, such as how the wines were aged and were consistently met with a flat "I don't know."

It's okay to not know. We never expect anyone to be an expert and it's perfectly fine to look something up or ask someone. But it's a huge bummer when the person pouring your wine doesn't even care and can't be bothered to try.

Strangely, many of the current releases were from the 2010 vintage, which is unusually old wine for a winery to be pouring for tastings right now. You expect a little brick coloring on wines as they age, but the 2010 Sangiovese was extremely brick in color. It had a distinct raisin taste, which usually suggests the wine may have been "cooked" or overheated at some point.

We asked our host if the brick color was normal and she again replied, "I don't know," before adding, "I don't really pay attention to the color of the wine." Yay.

The lack of any enthusiasm was a little disappointing. The good news is there are more wineries in Fallbrook for us to try the next time we go on a barbecue run!

Posted on February 25, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences, Adventures.

A Visit to Napa Valley After the Fires

Note: This post was originally published on the Inside Customer Service blog.

"I didn't know if I'd have a job to go back to."

That's something Sally and I heard over and over from winery employees, restaurant servers, and other customer service professionals we encountered in Napa Valley.

We visited during the first week in November. By then, the multiple wildfires that spread throughout the valley in October had been extinguished. The loss of life and property was terrible.

Now locals faced another potential disaster—job losses.

An estimated 9,000 people lost their jobs due to the October fires throughout Northern California, including Napa Valley. Many are worried that job losses are yet to come as the local economy deals with the aftermath.

My wife and I consistently heard one message while we were in Napa. "We're open for business. Please come to visit."

The view outside  Benessere Vineyards , makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

What Actually Burned

It's tough to follow a disaster on the news. Print and television media often confused the basic geography of the area when reporting on the fires.

As a result, people I've spoken to from around the country saw coverage of the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties and assumed everything was burning. In reality, there were multiple fires that were large and devastating, though the majority of Napa Valley emerged unscathed.

That's not to say the damage wasn't extensive.

Lives and homes were lost, which is the most tragic consequence. We saw images like these throughout certain parts of the valley.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The hills surrounding parts of the valley were also extensively burned as the fire raged unchecked through the backcountry. For those who haven't visited the area, Napa Valley is quite rural in places.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

One stroke of luck was the grapevines themselves acted as a natural firebreak. Many wineries were saved when the fire was stopped at the edge of the vineyard. At William Hill Estate Winery, one of our favorites, the signed was burned and the flames crept up to the side of the winery.

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Images like this might discourage you from visiting, though the wine was flowing, the wine room and surrounding garden were still intact, and the hospitality was still warm and friendly.

Even parts of the area that didn't burn were impacted by a thick cloud of ash and smoke that hung over the valley for several days. Some wineries lost grapes not from fire but from the air. Wine made from grapes exposed to smokey air can develop a distinctly unpleasant smoke taste.

Everywhere we looked there were remnants of soot from the fire. Workers at the Soda Canyon Store told us it took them three days to clean the store before they could reopen. I'm happy to report the store is now clean and the sandwiches are as delicious as ever.


The Economic Impact

Sally and I rented a house in downtown Napa for a week-long working vacation.

We secured the rental months earlier. A week or so before our trip we weren't sure if it was still a good idea to go. I emailed the property manager and asked.

She quickly replied and asked us to please come. The house had experienced a number of cancellations during one of the busiest times of the year. Her business, like so many others in the valley, could really use the revenue.

The valley is still sorting out the long-term economic impact of the fires. There will be costs to rebuild houses and businesses as well as replace burned out vehicles. 

We consistently heard about cancellations. The upside is we often had personalized tasting experiences like this one at Saintsbury.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

That was good for us, though not so great for the winery. The Napa Valley Register shared a recent story indicating many wineries have seen the number of visitors decline considerably over this same time last year.


How to Help

The best thing you can do is plan a trip to Napa.

The area is beautiful. Most of the wine and wineries are perfectly fine. The fall can be a special time of year as the leaves on the vines change. Some places are just magical.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

You can also buy Napa wine if a trip is not in the works. Your local wine shop is sure to have some great selections. You can also buy directly from a favorite winery and have it shipped directly to you.

Finally, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. This is an organization that works closely with other local nonprofits to funnel money to areas where there's the greatest need such as food, shelter, childcare, and transportation.

The area will recover. This is a close-knit community that became even closer in the wake of a disaster. One of our winery hosts told us, "We're farmers. Farmers help each other."

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Posted on December 3, 2017 and filed under Adventures.

First Impression: Texas Hill Country Wine

Sally is from Texas.

This means we have friends and family from Texas. Which, in turn, means we've been exposed to a few bottles of Texas wine. We're fans of any wine that tastes good, and some of it definitely tastes good.

So a recent family wedding in the Texas Hill Country town of New Braunfels gave us the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the local wine region. With Sally's mom, Mabeth, generously handling the driving duties, the three of us set out to taste some wine.

We were lucky to find two gems on a three winery tour. Not bad for any day of tasting. You can find these and other wineries on the Texas Wine Trail website.


Sister Creek Vineyards

Much of the wine we discover comes from shared bottles. Longtime family friends Robin and Dick Hesse shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sister Creek Vineyards. It was really good, so we added the winery to our list.

The visit started with a self-guided tour of their winemaking operation. Next, we did a flight of several wines, including a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and several Cabernet Sauvignons.

Prices were reasonable at $13.95-$39.95, which seemed right because these were everyday drinking wines to our palate. Good mellow flavors, a little acidic (which is great with food), and not too much heat.

Oh, and the winery was in an old barn that used to be a cotton gin.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Bending Branch


Mabeth picked this one out, and it turned out to be a wise choice.

The winemaker, Bob Young, smartly chose grapes that were well-suited to the Texas Hill Country climate such as Cinsaut, Charbono, and Tannat. These grapes tend to fare better in warmer summers than cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The 2012 Texas Tannat was a standout for us. It's what Sally calls a "fighter grape" because the vines' roots had to work hard to find water in the soil, which leads to smaller grapes but more intense flavors.

This one had big tannins, with a splash of bright fruit up front along with some mushroom and earthy undertones.

And of course there was this pick-up truck parked outside!


Bonus Knowledge

The Texas Hill Country consumer loves sweet Muscat. Every winery we visited sold it, and our host at each one said it was one of their top sellers.

It's not our style, but you can't argue with them for knowing their customers!

Posted on March 14, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

Five Bottles, Eight Friends, Endless Fun

We're big fans of themed wine parties.

It's a fun and easy way to enjoy some good wine with friends without getting too fussy or pretentious. The formula is pretty straightforward. 

  1. Pick a wine theme, such as Bordeaux-style blends or Zinfandel
  2. Pair the wine with a tasty meal. We cheat and use this awesome guide.
  3. Invite some friends over. We prefer a small group of six to eight.
  4. Serve the wine blind.
  5. Sip, swirl, chew, and discuss.

The theme for our latest wine party was Cabernet Sauvignon. Like our last "Call Me a Cab" party, we served up several Cabs that we picked up on our travels. Each had its own interesting story. 

2010 Raymond Burr. We visited the now-defunct winery in northern Sonoma County a few years ago. Yes, the winery was founded by its namesake, the actor Raymond Burr who is probably best known for playing Perry Mason in the television series by the same name. A friend recommended we go there (why else?) so we stopped by as we were passing through town. The wine was excellent and we were saddened to learn the winery is now gone.

2010 The Label. A 2013 trip to Paso Robles brought us to Turley Wine Cellars, a winery famous for its Zinfandel. Unfortunately, we caught them between vintages and most of their good stuff was sold out. They only had a few selections available for tasting that were all so-so until our host invited us to try some Cabernet Sauvignon called The Label that was a bit of the side project. Wow, it was good! They were selling magnums for the price of a regular 750ml bottle, so we said, "Yes, please!" 

2010 Cade Howell Mountain. This sister winery to the famous PlumpJack is becoming well-known in it's own right. We've visited a couple of times and have enjoyed their beautiful views overlooking Napa Valley and their incredible wine. 



Do your guests arrive in the same car?

Ours don't. People spill in at different times, but it would be impolite to keep people's palates dry while we wait for the whole crew to assemble. We usually like to start people off with a bit of white wine, such as a 2014 Cuvaison Sauvignon Blanc.



We like to start with a cheese course.

I wish I could tell you we were cheese geniuses. We're not. I mean, we took a wine and cheese pairing class once, but that's about as far as it goes. That's why we take the guesswork out of the whole process and trust the folks down at Venissimo Cheese to help us find a few selections to go with our theme.  

Dinner ideas come from What to Drink with What You Eat. You really can't go wrong with that awesome guide. The book suggested steak would go well with Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Don't over think things, right?


The Verdict

We keep the wines' identities secret until we've all had a chance to enjoy them with the meal. We do ask a few just for fun questions:

  • Which wine do you think is the oldest (or youngest)?
  • Where do you think the wine is from?
  • Which wine goes best with the cheese? With the meal? On it's own?

Finally, we ask our guests to vote on their favorites and then we reveal the selections.

The winner this time was the 2010 Raymond Burr. Alas, we drained our inventory that night and the winery is no more.


Post-Verdict Aftermath

It would be a sad party that ended right after the wines were revealed! There's always a call for a third bottle or two. 

This time, we shared a Cabernet Sauvignon Port that we picked up at Elyse Winery in Napa few years ago along with a Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina's Mendoza region that we picked up on the cheap from San Diego Wine Company.  

Posted on January 24, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

I'm Not Drinking any F*@#ing Merlot!

Way back in 2004, Merlot had a bad name. 

Myles, the main character in the movie Sideways, famously uttered his contempt for Merlot in this classic scene. That reputation was probably well-deserved as the market had been flooded with a lot of cheap, crappy wine.

Not anymore. Our friends, Alisa and Ken, recently hosted a blind tasting that proves Merlot is worth a try.

They served a line-up of four wines. For each one, we tried to guess the year, the cost, and the region. We also discussed what we liked and didn't about each one.

We attended a similar party at Alisa and Ken's last year, and a mid-priced Syrah from Ramona was the surprise winner. It proved the value of tasting wines blind - without any preconceived notions of price, region, or relative quality.

Would we have another surprise? Here were the vintages, regions, and price points. Which do you think was the winner?

  • 2010, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, $12
  • 2011, Ramona, $28
  • 2011, Napa Valley, $30
  • 2013, Napa Valley, $40

Perhaps it would help to know the wineries? Here's a photo line-up of the bottles:

And, the winner is...

The crowd favorite was the 2011 Clos du Val Merlot. It has a classic California Merlot taste. Dark fruit and a little spice on the nose and a little fruit-forward with blackberry and plum on the finish complemented with nicely balanced tannins.

Three notes:

  • We've visited all the wineries except for the one in France.
  • Trefethen displayed this funny sign outside their winery not long after Sideways came out.
  • Sally and I both had the Trefethen Merlot marked as #2 on our ballots. That's a surprise, because the last time we visited the winery we thought it was a dud.
Posted on August 20, 2016 .

How to Throw a Hassle-Free Single Varietal Wine Party

It's fun to focus on one varietal.

You really don't appreciate how different wine from the same grape can taste until you try several examples side-by-side. This can make for a fun party.

Here's one way you can do it that's relatively easy.

First, pick a grape that you know you and your friends generally like. We have a few friends that are crazy about Pinot Noir, so we recently decided to go with that one.

Next, invite some friends and ask each couple to bring a bottle of wine made from that grape. If you are inviting singles, you can ask half your guests to bring a bottle to keep things from getting too boozy. 

Now, you'll want to plan a menu that goes with that wine.

Wine pairing doesn't have to be difficult if you have the ultimate cheat sheet! We use What to Drink with What You Eat as our go-to guide for wine pairing. Just pick a grape and the book will give you a list of possible menu items that are sure to go well with that wine.

For our Pinot Noir party, Sally decided to go with beef brisket, mashed potatoes, and green beans wrapped in bacon.

We also started with a cheese course since wine can be fun to pair with cheese. Lucky for us, there's an amazing cheese shop in San Diego called Venissimo. All we have to do is tell one of their knowledgeable employees what varietal we're serving and they'll have several stellar recommendations at the ready.

The day of the party, it's a good idea to give your guests one wine glass for each bottle of wine being shared. Just be careful - this can make your table a little crowded.

We've found that dispensing with unnecessary items like table clothes, place mats, and center pieces can free up a little extra space.

There's one last prep item to mention. You want to get a bag of some kind for each wine bottle. Open yours just before guests arrive and then hand one to each guest.

This way, guests can open and bag their own wine so you won't see what they brought. We mark the bags with numbers so we can keep track of each wine while we're drinking it. Number one is the glass on each person's left, number two is the glass immediately to the right of that, and so on.

This helps during the tasting so you can all compare notes by referring to number one versus number two, etc.

OK, that covers the party planning. Once your guests arrive, it's time to enjoy yourself! We pour a small glass of each wine for our guests once everyone arrives and then start with the cheese course. This gives everyone a chance to try the wine with and without cheese.

We then move on to the main course. We all discuss the wine along the way. Part of the fun is discovering how people's perceptions change depending on what you're eating.

Finally, we see if there's a consensus favorite among the group.

At our Pinot Noir party, we were all surprised to learn that everyone brought a Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley region! Here's the line-up:

  • 2012 Maison L'Envoye Two Messengers Pinot Noir
  • 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir
  • 2013 Solena Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir
  • 2014 Erath Pinot Noir

All of the wines were tasty, but they had some big differences. Some were earthy while others were fruitier. Some were lighter while others were darker. It was fun to compare.

As always, we voted on a winner just for fun. The crowd favorite this time was the 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir.

Posted on May 21, 2016 .

A Short Guide to Wine Tasting in Los Olivos

Sally and I recently enjoyed wine tasting in the town of Los Olivos with some friends. If you've tasted wine from Santa Barbara County, you know it well. 

If you haven't yet visited Los Olivos, you should. Here's an overview to help you plan your visit.


The Town

Los Olivos is a tiny town of just over a thousand people located in Santa Barbara County. The town is near famous AVAs such as the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. You can get a good overview of the region on the Santa Barbara Vintners website.

The main section of Los Olivos is the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado avenues that form a central hub of tasting rooms, casual eateries, and small shops.

A look down Grand Avenue shows a few of our favorites clustered together: E11EVEN (a sub-label of Andrew Murray), Evan's Ranch (a sub-label of Gainey Ranch), and Olive Hill Farm, which is a purveyor of awesome olive and balsamic oils.

A fun quirk about this town is the public restrooms are located in the St. Marks In-the-Valley Episcopal Church. I think that officially makes Los Olivos a small town.

Los Olivos was also featured in the movie, Sideways. One of the most iconic scenes was filmed at the Los Olivos Cafe where Myles epically refused to drink Merlot..

Two Great Tasting Rooms

You can taste your way through several great tasting rooms without walking more than a block. There are a few other tasting rooms in the immediate vicinity that we'll have to try on a future visit.

Here are our picks:


Alta Maria

They specialize in Pinot Noir.

We tasted six different Pinot Noirs. Our favorites were the 2012 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, the 2013 Garey Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2013 Bien Nacido Block G Pinot Noir. Doing a side-by-side tasting of wines made by the same winemaker from the same grape really gives you an idea of how the location where the grapes are grown can influence flavor.



They specialize in Grenache. Our favorite here was the 2013 Tierra Alta Vineyard Grenache. We ended up buying two bottles, which waived the tasting fees.

This is a very dog friendly tasting room. The dogs almost outnumbered the humans when we visited with four or five dogs crowded into a small space. 



There are a few cool cafes in Los Olivos, but we opted to pick up tri-tip sandwiches as the R Country Market. One block away, there are picnic tables in the park adjacent to the town square, which was a relaxing place to enjoy our meal.

We've enjoyed some nice sandwiches from Panino on previous visits. Our friends recommended a newer place called Sides, but there was a pretty long wait by the time we got over there. Maybe next time!


Bonus Stop

There are quite a few wineries that are a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. We've visited several on trips in 2011 and 2012.

On this trip, we decided to return to Rusack. It was a good decision.

Rusack is a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. They have a spacious tasting room with a patio overlooking rolling, vineyard-covered hills.

The wines are very good. They were out of their Anacapa Cabernet Franc (a favorite of ours), but we enjoyed some very nice wines including their 2015 Rose and 2014 Sauvignon Blanc. Don't tell Rusack this, but their 2013 Ballard Canyon Estate Syrah is a steal at $29 per bottle.



We've stayed at The Hadsten House in Solvang on previous trips and it's been a very nice place for the money. There are more dining options near here, and it's just a short drive to the Los Olivos tasting rooms.

On this trip, we stayed at The Montecito Inn. It's in Montecito, an unincorporated community adjacent to Santa Barbara that's about an hour's drive from Los Olivos. I had been staying there all week because I had been on a business trip, so we decided to extend our stay.

It offers small, but nice guest rooms and is a short walk to the beach and a lot of restaurants. It's also in a very wealthy part of town. On one half-mile walk to dinner we saw seven Porsches, an Aston Martin, and a Bentley!

Posted on April 23, 2016 and filed under Adventures.