Architectural Articles

Tasteful Tasting Rooms

My education about California wines began at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. After an educational tour of the vineyard and barrel rooms, our small group gathered in one of several Mission-style rooms for a humorous presentation on the myths of wine tasting. Our guide warned that the manner in which the wine slides down the side of the glass, called "legs", is completely irrelevant. "And forget about sniffing the cork, unless you plan to eat it," he said. If a restaurant waiter opens your selected bottle of wine and hands you the cork, our host recommended that you toss it over your shoulder! Although I have not been seen tossing corks in public places, I do use the two-prong bottle opener at home that minimizes cork damage, which was demonstrated on that tour.

To celebrate our anniversary last year, my wife, Valerie, and I chose to be loyal to our local wine industry. We decided that the best way to become familiar with the subtle bouquets offered by local vintners was to sample their award-winning wines for ourselves. After picking up a wine-tour map at A Taste of Monterey in Oldtown Salinas, we drove off to visit several wineries in the Salinas and Carmel valleys.

The wine tasting room is the place where the wine grower directly interfaces with the public. "Hospitality is everything", says Terry Titus at Hahn Estates/Smith & Hook ( in Soledad. She speculates that the difference between Napa and Monterey counties is the sincere and intimate hospitality offered here. The seven hosts at Hahn Estates go out their way to meet a wide range of expectations to accommodate couples as well as large groups. "Education is key," Terry adds. She explained that they may be meeting a cautious couple that are tasting wine for the first time anywhere, while at the other end of the counter, they may be answering technical questions posed by more savvy tourists "who have visited every winery west of the Mississippi."

The wine tasting room at Hahn Estates is a separate building with an impressive view eastward over the grape fields across Salinas Valley. It is a surprise to learn that the large airy room is a tasteful remodel of a modular residence brought up to commercial codes. Since privacy at the wine tasting bar at the center of the room is always an issue, Terry thinks that you cannot have a counter that is too long. A couple may be negotiating how much to spend on a rare bottle of Cabernet without wanting to share their discussion with everyone nearby. Hahn Estates is known for their Merlots and Cabernets. They make nine varieties and pour eight every day (the ninth is a reserve Cabernet with a tasting fee of $3), plus two dessert wines available for tasting. The average stay at the counter is 30 to 45 minutes, so they have several convenient cash registers. Adjacent to the bar are extensive displays of tasteful gifts and souvenirs with the company logo. "You would be surprised," claims Terry, "how many calls we get from people around the country whose family name is Hahn, looking for gifts." (The rooster logo refers to the German translation of Hahn.) The pleasant atmosphere is enhanced with music, flowers, and scents subtle enough so as not to compete with the ability to smell and taste wine.

Further down the valley, the farm-house setting of Jekel Vineyards beckons. Visitors can enter the tasting room across a trellis-covered patio surrounding by vineyards. A bubbling fountain and varieties of flowers cover the picnic area creating a pleasant and quiet ambiance. From the tasting room, you see into the bottling room and watch the wine make its way from barrel to bottle. "We encourage people to bring a picnic lunch," says Jane Beery, the Tasting Room Manager (831-674-5525). "We are proud of our relaxed at-home atmosphere." She observes that "most people that visit are on a holiday so laughter and good fellowship abound…a fun filled time can be had by all." Jane explains that their tasting room is rather small so most of their gifts are wine or wine-related. Flowers fill every corner. Jekel is proud of their vast selection of wines and offers as many as twelve different tastes at no charge.

The architectural style of wineries and the interior decorating of tasting rooms are as individual and varied as their wines. While some growers and their architects aspire to present a contemporary image unique to northern California, others borrow from older precedents on the European continent. Chateau Julien Estate ( intentionally built their facility in Carmel Valley to resemble a chateau at the border of France and Switzerland. Tours of their facilities include a barrel room, a bottling and production facility, a crush pit, gardens, and vineyards. They do not have a wine tasting bar. They prefer, instead, the European custom of a great hall with seats and tables in a living room atmosphere. Patty Brower explains that Chateau Julien promotes a "warm, friendly, less intimidating, home-like setting-like the French." The volumous Great Room is decorated with French and English antiques against plaster walls, with custom light fixtures providing low-level and indirect lighting. Patty says that their staff of eleven acts as hosts and hostesses for small and large groups each day. For example, they annually host a group of 200 seniors from Miami. "We want your visit here to be fun, like Disney," Patty declares. Chateau Julien is known for Chardonnay, Merlot & Sangiovese.

An expanded view of wine tasting rooms is described by Ken Rauh, at A Taste of Monterey Visitors Center ( with two locations: Cannery Row in Monterey and Oldtown in Salinas. His goal is to promote the regional wine industry. A large wall mural maps the dozens of wine growers throughout Monterey County. The Monterey center includes viticulture and barrel exhibits, a theater, a gift shop, and a tasting bar with a spectacular view of the bay. The Salinas store is next to the National Steinbeck Center, which includes a basement gallery for private events. Ken would like to see a wine museum similar to the proposed agricultural wing of the Steinbeck Center with state-of-the-art interactive displays for visitors of all ages.

Always looking for an exhibit designer, Rauh asked me if I was willing to be reimbursed for design services with cases of wine. A few design sketches would be worth a bottle or two of Pinot Noir. Hmmm, let me think about that between sips.

Published in Coastal Grower, Spring 2002

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