Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague says that Joan Fennell runs Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle with an iron fist. Fennell requires every staff member in her tasting room to be knowledgeable about the wines and provide every guest with the best winery tasting room experience possible. At one point, Teague was watched Fennell critique one of the wine tour guides; the guide had forgotten to explain why Chateau Ste. Michelle never rinses out guests’ glasses between wines (there is too much chlorine in the water). This might seem like a minor detail, but for Fennell, it was an absolutely essential part of the wine tasting. As she explains, when a winery opens its tasting room to the public, it is offering a vital service to wine collectors. One oversight could taint the reputation of the winery itself, and potentially the reputation of the entire wine region. For collectors, a wine tasting can make or break their opinions of a wine forever; some collectors miss out on incredible wines simply because they weren’t able to try them first.
How many wineries in Cote-Rotie allow visitors to request a free tour with no advance notice? Although Guigal is one of the finest producers in Rhone, the winery also has a reputation among wine enthusiasts for its welcoming atmosphere toward their wine’s many fans. One wine collector recalls the time that he knocked on Guigal’s door asking for a quick tour, and the owners were happy to show him around the estates. The few times that guests are turned down for a tour is during harvest season, when the vines demand the estate’s full attention. Not only does this estate frequently offer impromptu tours, its wines are staples for some of the best wine tasting events in the world. By far the most compelling wines to taste at Guigal are the famous “La La Las”: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. However, the main reason that wine collectors will find a tour of Guigal absolutely essential is because it is the best introduction to northern Rhone Syrah in the world. Each of the three La La Las represent slightly varying styles of the same wine varietal, Syrah, but they differ based on terroir. This is a once-in-a-lifetime example of how much variety can be found in Rhone, even within the same estate.
Even for collectors who have only a passing interest in Syrah, a Guigal tour is essential for anyone who wants to learn more about Rhone as a whole. Guigal wines receive consistently high scores among critics, and they are highly collectible on the secondary market. When collectors have the opportunity to try these wines first-hand, they can determine which vintages are worth the investment for their own cellars. Wine critic scores are often so high that it is difficult to tell the difference between the wines without tasting them for yourself. For example, in 2012, La Turque received near-perfect scores, and wine critics said it was full of stiff perfume and full-bodied flavors of bacon fat. That same year, La Landonne received near-identical scores, but was described as fresh and supple. La Mouline also garnered high scores that year, and wine critics described it as more floral and sweet.
Home to one of the most scenic tasting rooms in Napa Valley, Robert Mondavi Winery features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vines, and massive tables designed to accommodate the largest number of guests possible. When you arrive on this estate, you have a choice between four tasting rooms, each of which offer different tasting options. In the Vineyard Room, collectors sample a number of classic Mondavi wines, along with a few spotlight wines hand-picked by the winemakers every year. The cost of this tour ranges from $5-$30, and it is the best option for beginning collectors who aren’t at all familiar with Mondavi wines, and who want to try a wide variety of them to decide which bottles they enjoy most. By contrast, the To Kalon Room offers wines from Mondavi’s Reserve labels, along with the spotlight wines from the Vineyard Room tour. The cost ranges from $8-$45, and is a better option for collectors who are ready to invest in Mondavi’s finer bottles. These Reserve wines are typically more collectible than the more basic wines offered in the Vineyard Room.
For collectors who want to dive in deeply into Mondavi’s finest wines, I suggest visiting the Library Wine Tasting Room or the Spotlight Lounge. In the Library, Mondavi winemakers select four wine vintages from the past five decades of wines on the estate. The cost is $55, and it gives collectors the chance to sample some of the best and most collectible Mondavi vintages from its history, which can be a good way for collectors to find worthy additions to their cellar. In the Spotlight Lounge tour, wine club members get exclusive access to the spotlight wines from the Vineyard Room, all free of charge. It’s by no means essential for collectors to join Mondavi’s wine club to find excellent wines during the tour, but membership is an option worth considering for collectors who already buy plenty of Mondavi wines.
Having spent 40 years developing its reputation for fine Shiraz, Penfolds is one of Australia’s most collectible wine producers. This estate serves other wines like Cabernet Sauvignon as well, but its flagship label, the Grange, receives the most international attention and acclaim. With only one major wine label to choose from, it would seem that finding a great Penfolds bottle would be an easy task for collectors, but in fact, it can be difficult to dig through these vintages to find the one most worth collecting. A few years ago, some collectors began “flipping” bottles of Grange on the secondary market, buying them for relatively low prices from the estate, then selling them to collectors for hundreds of dollars more. This created a market bubble around the wine, and made it tough to tell which were the best Penfolds vintages based on price alone.
So how do you find the most collectible Penfolds vintages? One of the best way is by taking a tasting tour at two of its locations: Barossa Valley Cellar Door and Magill Estate Cellar Door. Magill Estate is primarily meant for collectors who want to understand the history of Penfolds, since this tour offers a special section dedicated to “hidden” Grange vintages. In the 1950s, Penfolds’ winemakers made experimental versions of the wine in secret, fearing that the Penfolds board would hate the new, experimental wines; during the tour, guests get to see where these wines were stored, and learn more about the history of these special vintages. In addition, guests get to try some of the lesser-known Cabernet Sauvignon bottles offered by the estate. The Barossa Valley tour is centered more around tastings of the Grange, which is useful for collectors looking for excellent Shiraz to cellar. When collectors have the chance to try these wines for themselves, they get firsthand knowledge of the wine rather than relying on market prices or secondhand reviews.
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