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There are 141 public wine-tasting rooms in Napa Valley and good friends Hank Beal and Rick Kushman visited every one. This week, Beal and Kushman join host David Lytle to discuss their new guidebook and travelogue, A Moveable Thirst. The two authors share how they learned about wine, reveal pitfalls of sniffing and spitting, and give advice for beginners and seasoned oeneophiles alike -- including how to maximize the Napa experience on a budget.

Read A Moveable Thirst: How to Tour Napa's Tasting Rooms, an excerpt from the book, and see a map of downtown Napa Tasting rooms.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Go Early: Go to the wineries earlier in the morning when your palate is more "awake".
  • Avoid Summer: Visit Napa Valley in Spring or Winter to avoid crowds.
  • Free Tastings: Hites, Rombauer.
  • Buying Tip: If you like it, buy it.
  • Take Notes: Ask for the tasting sheet, and take notes on all the wines you try.
  • Spit: If you're trying a lot of wines, try not to drink too much. Ask for a spit cup.
  • Dress Dark: Especially when you're just leaning to spit and taste, nobody will notice when you spill.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

David Lytle: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.

Hi, this is David Lytle, the editorial director of Frommers.com. Today we're talking with the authors of "A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season In Napa Wine Country," with reviews of 141 Napa tasting rooms. The authors are Hank Beal, who's a wine pro -- he's an executive buyer at an upscale supermarket chain in Northern California -- and Rick Kushman, who is a syndicated columnist for "The Sacramento Bee," covering television.

Hi, guys. How's it going?
Rick Kushman: Fine!
Hank Beal: Great. How are you doing?
David: Great. I'm doing well, thanks. Actually, just to let the listeners know, I met you guys for the first time a couple nights ago, at a little launch party for your book. Appropriately enough, we drank some wine.
Rick: It's the beauty of writing a book about wine: it's always a great excuse to drink more wine.
David: Absolutely.
Hank: It doesn't hurt to help the conversation flow either.
David: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. It's a little lubrication. For the record, I am not drinking this morning.

[laughter]

So this book really is divided into three parts, just to give the listeners a feel for it. The first part is a travelogue, where you guys are driving through basically every winery in Napa and every town in Napa -- giving a feel for the people, the places, even the names of the dogs of the owners of the wineries. Then there are a few tips on exactly how to drink wine, what to do when you're visiting Napa...

And then the most extraordinary thing, to me, about this guidebook is the guidebook part of it, which is the last section, where you give individual reviews for every tasting room in Napa Valley. Which, as far as I know, hasn't been done before. Do you know of anybody else who's done this?
Rick: No, no. And that was one of the things that got us started on this. There's so many travelogues out there, and they have too much ground to cover, basically. So they'll say something like, "Beringer was built in 1876 and has a lovely Rhine house." But they don't tell you whether you get to drink wine in the Rhine house, and what kinds of wines you get, and what the atmosphere is.

We have not seen anything that was remotely comprehensive, where anybody went to every place. So we are unique.
David: Right. I can't imagine that people are actually just visiting a winery to see the Rhine house.
Rick: Right. Right. I think people do want to know the back-story of every winery, but at some point, when you are driving up and down the road in Napa, what you really want to know is: what's going to happen when we go in there?
David: Exactly. You divide the tasting room up into just salient points that people need to know. There's lovely detailed descriptions, obviously practical: hours, phone numbers, and all of that. You describe the atmosphere.

But then you also let people know the sort of service they're going to get, whether there are picnic tables so that maybe if you want a snack while you're there... the kinds of wines, what it costs, directions, and whether it's recommended for everyone or not.

Now, what sort of tasting room wouldn't be recommended for everyone?
Rick: There are places, and I can think of one, for example: Regusci, which is a place that we recommend. If I remember... Hank, you knew their wine, correct?
Hank: Yes, we've carried their wine before.
Rick: Yeah, and I didn't. But they were this old building up on the hill, looking down on Silverado Trail in the southern part of the Valley. They wanted you to take your time; they wanted you to talk about the wine. They put up signs that said "Reservations Only," but they don't even require that on their permit.

What it is, is they want people who are serious. So they don't want you to just come in there to drink; they want you to come in and talk. Frankly, that's great, because they'll talk to you a lot and they'll pour you all kinds of different things.
Hank: There's also wineries that may be up long, winding roads, and if you're not into long, windy drives, or if you get motion sickness or stuff like that, you just have to be aware, too, that that's where some of these wineries are located.
David: Yeah. I'm always a guy who wants to know if I'm going to feel like I'm falling off the edge of a cliff.
Hank: Right.
Rick: And you know, there's also the other side of it. There are some wineries that are definitely aimed towards beginners, and that's great, too.

Places like Sutter Home -- when somebody comes from the middle of the country and the only wine they've really ever tasted from Napa Valley might have been a Sutter Home White Zin, that's where they're going to go. So that room is geared more towards people that are coming to the Valley. They talk at a real basic level, and then they give directions after the tasting.
Hank: I think you've got to be careful of when you go to certain wineries, too. If you're not into crowds and a lot of hustle and bustle, avoid the busy hours, avoid the busy times of year, and things like that. A tasting room might be a different experience depending on the time of day and the time of year, as well.
David: Yeah, that actually leads to one of the many questions I've written down, especially because -- you guys did this over the course of one full year or longer?
Rick: One wine season.
Hank: Yeah.
David: OK, one wine season.
Rick: Which is bud break, early March -- and bud break is when the grapes are starting to pop out -- to when all the wine is put in the barrels. In '05, the year we went, that was past Thanksgiving, actually.
David: So it's past the crush; it's to the barreling stage. When did you find to be the best time to go? I know that's an awful descriptor in some ways, because "best" is in the eye of the beholder.
Hank: Basically, the slower times of the week and the slower times of the day, if you can get there. Palate-wise, it's always best to taste wine earlier in the morning. Between 9:00 and 10:00 seems like the best time. Your palate's more awake. The tasting rooms usually don't open until about 10:00 or 11:00. The wines are fresh and it's just a better experience. The people are more relaxed and have time to talk to you about the wine. I mean, that's ideal, for me.
David: Wow, that's interesting. I never knew that about the palate.
Rick: One of the many things I learned. This book is also sort of the education of a wine dummy, which would be me, with Hank along the way. So with the time, when to go, there's also sort of this sliding scale -- as it gets later in the day and closer to mid-summer and crush, you're going to get more crowds.

So if you can go in spring or winter... and winter's a great time to go to Napa. The Valley is beautiful, there's fires going in the tasting rooms, and sometimes it'll be just you and the servers. They're bored, so they'll talk to you for a while and pour you more.
David: Right. Almost giddy to see somebody.
Rick: Sometimes they leap over the counter and hug you. It's a little embarrassing.

[laughter]
David: Speaking of that, you've described some characters in this book who -- let's say they're "exuberant." One example was the yodeler at Peju Province.
Hank: The yodeler.
Rick: The yodelmeister.
Hank: For me that made the experience more of a show than about the wine.
David: Yeah.
Hank: For some people that's great, and a lot of people in the tasting room seemed to be eating it up. But his descriptions of the wine weren't real on-point, as far as getting down to the actual characteristics of the wine. He turned it into a rap song, even. It was fun, it was entertaining; but for me it tended to be less about the wine and more about the show. He was definitely a character.
Rick: Yeah, and that's a good example of a place where somebody who's sort of new to Napa and new to wine... If you're going to have fun and you're really more there just for the vacation, it's a great place.

There's another winery that does that: Frank Family, which is up the Valley a little bit more. They also put on a show, but their show is actually more about wine and the education. So if you're a little more into wine but you still want to have this sort of really fun group atmosphere, then Frank Family is a place where you'll find some characters too.

[crosstalk]
Hank: Caterina, at Arger-Martucci - that was a show just watching her handle all the people, but she still got around to talking about the wine and made it fun.
David: And as you guys described that, her show really seemed to be about this amazing efficiency of serving everybody that was in the tasting room, even fielding phone calls, finding out another group was coming, serving a meal to people that she had made...
Hank: Everybody there feels special and welcomed and just wanted to hang around there.
Rick: And that's also sort of one of the things that makes going to Napa over and over... This is why we are such fans of the place. The next time we go there, it could be quiet, and it could just be us and Caterina. She'd talk about the wine but she wouldn't be crazed, and you just never know what you're going to get. It's generally something fun.

The people that are there and the people that work there are there because they love wine, so even when you wander in on a busy time, you can still feel their enthusiasm for it.
David: Years ago we had a friend who worked at Clos du Val, and it was my first experience at Napa, which also turned out to be very special, because there's a reciprocity between employees. She just took me over to meet her friends at different vineyards.
Rick: Right. And Clos du Val, by the way - which is down at the southern end of the valley, on the Silverado Trail - they have birds that return every month, and if they poop on you, you get a tasting for free.

[laughter]
David: I wonder, can you encourage them to do that?

[laughter, crosstalk]
Rick: Being on a budget and having to go to 141 tasting rooms, I sat there and tried to get bombed, and it didn't happen.
David: Do you have any recommendations for people who are on a budget to maximize their experience in Napa?
Rick: Indeed we do. In fact, we have a list of the free tasting rooms in there.
Hank: There are actually free tasting rooms left in Napa. That was a surprise to me, because I've been to Napa quite a few times, and many times it's on a trade-type tasting, where you go and you're set up by appointment. I was actually surprised by how many free tasting rooms there were.
Rick: I can tell you two that are actually sort of surprising. One is Hites, which is one of the old classic wineries of Napa; they make some of the classic Cabs. They're right on Highway 29 - the tasting room is - and they're free. And Rombauer!
Hank: Rombauer, yeah.
Rick: Rombauer's free. Rombauer's one of the names that... Lots of people love their Chardonnay, and their Zin, and a lot of their wine. They're up the hill off the Silverado Trail at the northern end of the valley, and they're also free.
David: That's good to know. I'm actually making little notations along page 196 in the guide for that.
Rick: Another thing: if you are going to buy wine and you're going to have a picnic, many of the places... There are very few that won't refund your tasting fee if you buy the wine. Even if they don't offer it, ask; it doesn't hurt. And generally they'll let you.

And so you can end up buying a bottle of wine and having a picnic, if they have the tables around - and we have a list of who has those - and get a really nice experience for what amounts to the cost for that one bottle of wine.
David: Exactly. You actually have a series of tips on buying wine, and really I think the standout one is "basically, if you like it, buy it."
Rick: Yeah. Yeah.
David: "Don't think you're going to be able to get it later somewhere, because either you won't, or you'll forget."
Hank: The wineries sell wines at the tastings that they only sell there or to their club members. As a retailer, I'll go into the wineries and say, "I didn't even know they made this, because it never gets to the market." So in some cases it's the only way to get a certain wine.
Rick: And so often, I'm sure anybody who's done a wine tour and gone to the store looking for that wine has the experience (this is why I need a pro like Hank to hang around)... I totally forget what it was I had. I'll remember the wine, but I'm looking at three or four or five different wines they have there, and I can't... "What was the wine I tasted? What was the vineyard?"

So, just buy it. And you'll remember it more: you bring it home, you open it up, you have it at dinner. The next time you'll remember it more, too.
Hank: When you go to the winery, they'll have a tasting sheet laminated on the counter. Many times you can ask them for a copy of that sheet. They don't always have stacks laying around, but just ask them for a copy of their tasting sheet and make your notes right there. You'll get the correct vintage and the correct vineyard that you're looking for. Many labels do look similar back at the store.
David: Sure.
Hank: But having the specific vintage and the vineyard does change it.
David: That's a good tip. Ask for the information to take with you, because ultimately they want people to do two things: have a nice experience, and buy their product.
Hank: Yeah, if you go in and ask for a copy of the tasting notes and start taking notes, we've found that many times they pay a little more attention to you. Because you do look like somebody who's really into the wine, and really wants to learn and wants to know. You might get a little more attention that way.
Rick: Right. There's a learning experience involved too: when you write it down, you remember it a little more.
David: Sure.
Rick: That's always a good way to go. You remember what you think about and look at it, and your brain sort of catalyzes it - I guess that's what it is.
David: That's why when you start college, they always tell you to take notes. Because you do remember it more.

A couple other tips I wanted to get out here, before we run out of time -- some very simple things. Don't try to drink too much or do too much.
Hank: Yes, exactly, the drinking part. We could talk a little bit about spitting. Some people have a hard time spitting, but of course for us it's a necessity because you see so many wineries. It's totally acceptable. It's OK to use the bucket they have on the counter, or ask for a separate little spit cup and then pour it into the bucket. That's one way to avoid consuming too much alcohol, especially if you don't have a designated driver.
Rick: Right. And the start of the book is the narrative of me learning how to spit and taste. My number one suggestion on that score is "Wear dark colors." Nobody will notice when you spill.
David: Yeah, don't wear your white linen suit.
Rick: No. White linen is really a bad idea around dark wine.
David: Hey guys, I've got a question for you. Are you planning on doing more of these guides?
Rick: Yes, yes. We've got a bunch of ideas. Now that I know a little bit about wine, and I've got Hank sucked into this thing, we plan to go to Australia. We want to go to Italy. We might even go around the world doing this.
David: That would be awesome. Italy - you definitely would have to segment that. [crosstalk] Are you going to go to every tasting room in Italy?
Rick: Well, we probably wouldn't be able to be quite as comprehensive. Every tasting room in Italy would be like a year in Italy. Frankly, I'd love to do it, but Hank has a real job.
Hank: Yeah, I couldn't get off that long.
David: OK. Well, Hank Beal and Rick Cushman, I really want to say thanks a lot. This has been an enjoyable conversation.

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Rick: And fun for us too.
Hank: Thank you, David.
David: Sure. Have a good day.
Rick: Take care, Dave.
David: For more information about planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the Web at www.frommers.com. And be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions. This has been a production of Wiley Publishing. It may not be reused or rebroadcast without express written consent.

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