Raise Your Glass!

Eager to educate and provide social venues for wine lovers, tasting rooms have found the Coachella Valley ripe for the experience.

Janice Kleinschmidt. Restaurants 0 Comments

Vineyards in the east end of the Coachella Valley may tempt tourists to search for wine-tasting rooms only to discover those vineyards strictly yield table grapes. Several venues to the west, however, stand ready to assuage their disappointment.

Once they get past the notion that wine tasting in California exists only among vineyards and venture into one of the desert’s several wine-tasting spots, visitors will discover what local oenophiles know: that here tasting wine often constitutes a social event.

Cinema Lounge
In spring and summer, Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs offers wine tastings on Sundays from 4 to 8 p.m. in the second-floor Cinema Lounge.

“We believe that we are providing an atmosphere that is different than any other theater,” says General Manager Jason Bruecks. While multiplexes show films that appeal to kids and teens who want candy and soda, Camelot Theatres, with a lounge and café, capitalizes on its niche market of art-house film lovers who may be more inclined to enjoy a cocktail and dinner. “This really is an adult theater,” Bruecks says, “where they can get away from the kids.”

Many moviegoers visit the lounge after or before a film, and some even take a drink into the theater.

The lounge itself features abundant space, carpeting, cocktail tables and chairs, padded banquettes, background music, and a full-service bar. Guiding the wine tastings, Norman Niccoll grew a following of “regulars” with his viticulture knowledge, as well as colorful anecdotes of his days working in Sonoma County and Carmel Valley wine country.

Dan’s Wine Shop
Dan Sullivan hosts 50 to 60 guests during monthly tastings at Dan’s Wine Shop in Palm Desert. Though mostly local residents, his Friday night crowds include weekend visitors from Los Angeles. “Everyone has a pretty good time,” says Sullivan, who also has a pretty good time business-wise.

“I sell $2,000 to $3,000 [worth of wine] in a two-hour period,” he says.

Held on Fridays in two sessions, from 6 to 7 p.m. and from 7 to 8 p.m. (the busier time), Dan’s tastings feature three white and three red wines — mostly in the $8 to $15 range, but with higher-end bottles also thrown into the mix. The cost for the tasting is $5.

The small store fills easily on tasting nights. Thirty people can take up most of the floor space between boxes and crates on the floor or on tables. Sullivan says he carries about 10 percent of what he samples, which can only be described as an eclectic collection. For example, one could find a $6.99 Rotari sparkling brut from Italy and a $250 1979 Chateau Margaux French Bordeaux on the same day.

“You could come in two months from now and it could be 40 percent new items on the floor,” Sullivan says. And they could be new to customers in another way. “Some of these obscure wines have never been reviewed [by wine magazines].”

Dan’s informs wine lovers of special offerings and tasting events through e-mail. Sullivan, who has been selling wine in the desert for 18 years, says many of his regular customers rely on his recommendations.

“I now have a feel for what the clientele looks for here,” he says. “They say, ‘OK, Dan recommends it. I’ll try it.’”

Desert Discount Wines 
“Pinot envy,” reads a poster at the rear of Desert Discount Wines. Below the words is Michelangelo’s David holding a bottle of pinot noir in front of his private parts.

That unassuming air pervades the Palm Springs store owned and run by Costa and Zola Nichols, yet their weekly tasting is called a “An Educational Wine Tasting Event” (emphasis added).

Costa sends out a weekly e-mail describing the wines he’ll pour that Saturday, including what characteristics can be detected in the bouquet and taste of the wines.

“I do wish to educate the public on the subject of wine, whether it be the nature of the wine or the language of the wine, some historical perspective, or some geographical perspective, because all of it kind of dovetails together,” he says. Tastings may concentrate on new arrivals or a particular variety, region, or style of wine.

“We want [patrons] here not necessarily to like the wine. We know everybody has different likes and dislikes. We want them to understand the wines, how wines differ from area to area,” Costa says, adding that he dislikes hearing people say they don’t like a certain type of wine. “They cease to learn anything about that wine. It’s a whole arm of the wine world they just totally cut off.”

In that vein, he assembled a merlot tasting after the release of the hit film Sideways, in which the main character, Miles, expresses particular contempt for merlot.

“Probably the most expensive bottle of Bordeaux wine made [Chateau Petrus] is 100 percent merlot,” Costa points out. “Merlot is a very important wine grape in that it is one of the five major grapes to come from the Bordeaux region of France and is used to blend in the great chateau wines of that area.”

Tastings at Desert Discount Wines, held 3-5 p.m. each Saturday, attract a regular crowd, but also those who discover the event serendipitously. The $5 tasting charge is credited toward any purchase. The store also carries imported beers; premium liquors; crackers, cheeses, spreads, and related foods; glasses and entertainment items; and gift baskets.

Fleming’s Wine Bar
Marion Jansen op de Haar has been known to taste 130 wines in a day. As director of wine for the Fleming’s chain, she and the restaurant wine managers annually select 100 wines that will be offered by the glass. This year’s “Fleming’s 100” — culled among thousands of wines from five continents — includes more domestic boutique wines than in previous years.

In July, Fleming’s at The River at Rancho Mirage previewed five of the wines — paired with artisanal cheeses and hors d’oeuvres — in complimentary “Nights of Discovery.” The mailing announcing the events drew such an enthusiastic response that a fourth event was added to the three planned; each was limited to 50 attendees.

“This is so successful, that if somebody waits even a minute or two, we’re sold out,” says Operating Partner Mark Stagner. But you can walk into Fleming’s any time and order a wine flight comprised of three
2-ounce pours, each selection priced at one-third the price by the glass.

“Half [the patrons] will continue down the flight lines because they’re having fun with it,” Stagner says. “Other people at that point will order a glass of one of the wines they liked.”

So important is wine tasting to Fleming’s that it spent six months on a new presentation: a “wine vine” that holds three glasses and a card identifying the wines with minimal footprint on the bar or table.

Patrons need not worry if the thought of choosing among 100 wines sounds daunting. “Sixty percent of the time, they tell us to pick them,” Stagner says.

Fleming’s maintains a “matrix” that states if the wine list has a German white, it will also have a French white, as well as ones from South Africa and Canada. “So when you look at our list, it’s not very singular,” Stagner says.

The restaurant also has about six wine-tasting dinners a years, from September through May.

Palm Springs Wine & Art
“We are a fully licensed wine and beer bar, bottle shop, and art gallery,” says Michael Judson-Carr of Palm Springs Wine & Art. “That means people will be able to buy wine by the glass as well as taste it.” And they can buy a bottle to take home.

The aspect of the venue that really distinguishes it in Judson-Carr’s mind, however, is that it is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday-Saturday. Between 15 and 20 wines are offered for tasting at any given time at a cost of $6 for three pours. Or patrons can buy a half-glass to try a couple of wines or a full glass. Judson-Carr believes in flexibility.

“We see ourselves being a place where people can come and meet before they go out to a fine dinner,” he says. To that end, he offers appetizer plates or appetizer-and-wine specials.

The downtown space, in a byway between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives, features a high ceiling; tile and faux-painted concrete floors; a 23-foot bar with a custom top that glistens (an inner core of shattered glass is sandwiched between tempered glass); artist-made tables, a sofa salon area; and jazz music in the background. Wines for sale by the bottle (some refrigerated) are displayed in one corner of the 1,200-square-foot space to allow room for artwork, including paintings, glasswork, and sculptures.

“We won’t have any specific [art] genre,” Judson-Carr notes. Instead the gallery displays a variety of contemporary pieces by local artists. Wine, on the other hand, does fit a specific category: California wines, especially small estate wines from Southern California.

Judson-Carr has plans “down the road,” even though the wine bar/gallery opened on the last day of August. “I hope to be able to sponsor Palm Springs’ first grape stomp festival.”

P.S. Wine
One local doctor visits P.S. Wine in Palm Springs every four to five weeks and spends $400 to $500, but he doesn’t partake in the bottles owner Paulette Wright opens for tasting. He drinks big, bold brunellos — specifically, ’97 and ’99 vintages.

“He is not interested in trying a $12 bottle of chardonnay that I have open,” Wright says, noting that the brunellos run about $60. “Most of the customers that I have that will spend — and do often spend — $40, $50, $60, $70 a bottle … know what they like, and they don’t come in looking for anything too different.”

On the other hand, she adds, her typical customers, which include tourists and loyal locals who visit every three or four weeks, “like to try new things.” They buy from one to four bottles and spend between $8 and $20 for each. Wine tastings are available from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

“Most people that come in to taste will generally find something they like,” Wright says.

Because many oenophiles like to try different wines, she sends out a monthly flyer informing those who sign up for it about a wine she has just brought in or special discounts (she also consistently replenishes a
15 percent-off table). And occasionally she hosts a tasting party with hors d’ouevres on a Saturday afternoon.

“We chat and people meet each other and talk about the wine,” she says. “It’s a great deal of fun, and I enjoy the feedback from my customers. They share with me other wines they like that they’ve tried.”

Wright opens three whites and two reds for tasting.  She says liquor laws allow only three one-ounce tastings for free, so customers who want to try all five pay $1.

Opened in July at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, Tastings combines a restaurant, wine bar, and wine store. The husband-and-wife team of Bob Finlayson and Marci Breitling furnished the place with sofas and coffee tables to create a “hip, chic atmosphere, but also a very friendly environment” hoping to encourage conversation not only between people who come together but also with others they sit near, Finlayson explains.

“The best way to enjoy fine wine and fine food is to be able to talk about it with other folks and share the experience,” he notes, adding that Tastings is for wine novices, wine experts, and wine enthusiasts. (The owners count themselves among the latter.)

“We will share our knowledge, and we hope that others will share theirs,” Finlayson says.

Guests also are encouraged to share food, which is served in appetizer-sized portions so people can try different menu items, perhaps with a recommended wine pairing noted on the menu. Tastings offers weekly flights of wine (one white, one red) comprising three or four 2-ounce pours and costing the same as a glass of wine. The selection features primarily Pacific Coast wines, but also includes those of Australia, Chile, South Africa, Spain, France, and Italy. About 20 are offered by the glass and 70 by the bottle. The retail section also offers decanters and accoutrements.

“The idea of Tastings is about experience. Once people get to a certain point in their life, how many things do you need?” Finlayson poses. “What’s important about life is experiences, so the idea is to help people have great experiences related to one of the things closest to our hearts: great food and great wine.” 

In addition to wine, the retail shop sells serving ware, olive oils, tapenades, chocolates, and other gourmet treats.

Tulip Hill Winery
Tulip Hill Winery at The River at Rancho Mirage constitutes a “real” wine-tasting room; it just happens to be 500-plus miles from the Tulip Hill vineyards in Central and Napa valleys.

Belly up to the marble-topped, cherry wood bar with the glass mosaic tulip on the front and sample Tulip Hill’s line of 14 varietals and blends. You can try four for $5 or eight for $8. Or join the wine club and you and a guest taste for free.

“We get about 1,000 people a week through here,” says owner Kristi Brown. “And people tend to buy what they taste.”

In addition to daily tastings, Tulip Hill holds release parties that draw about 200 people in a four- to five-hour period (new releases and food are complimentary).

“Those are the fun days,” Brown says. New over the last year are occasional, complimentary wine-and-food pairing parties. Wine club members and anyone who signs up on a mailing list are notified of special events. At the winery and tasting room in Nice (at Clear Lake), Tulip Hill — which brings in about 30,000 tulip bulbs to plant annually — holds a tulip festival in April.

“I am amazed at how many people come through that tasting room up there that have been through the tasting room in Rancho Mirage,” Brown says. “We find it mind-blowing.”

In addition to the wine-tasting bar, the Rancho Mirage tasting room features complimentary tasting of flavored olive oils, gourmet treats such as wine-filled chocolates, glassware, wine accessories, and numerous host/hostess items. Brown says 40 percent of sales are non-wine items.

Vino 100
Vino 100 owner Brian Estenson considers buying a bottle of wine based only on its label something of a guessing game. Just because a wine scored an impressive 96 in Wine Spectator doesn’t mean it will suit everyone’s personal style.

“It’s like going to a clothing store and not being able to try on the clothes before you buy,” says Estenson. “We have a motto: If the doors are open, wine is open.”

Though the Cathedral City store (one of the Civic Center’s first businesses) will open wine anytime, it also offers broader tasting options: On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Estenson pours four to six different wines to expose customers to different styles. For example, he may start with a sauvignon blanc, then move to a viognier, and then on to a chardonnay.

“It’s always an educational experience,” says Estenson, whose goal is “to break down the barrier between the consumer and the bottle of wine.”

Additionally, Vino 100 hosts several learning/tasting events, including new arrivals the first Friday of the month from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and customer appreciation night every third Monday from 5:30 to 8 p.m., during which Estenson features a particular varietal or region. Tastings also include a sampling of some of the artisan cheeses and other gourmet foods for sale. Beginning this month, two Wine 101 classes and one advanced, region-specific class ($25) will be offered on the first, second, and fourth Mondays.

Between two walls of wine in the spacious store, customers may find serving trays, cutting boards, trivets, and coasters with wine-related images; decorative oil bottles; cheese knives; wine carriers/picnic cases; and stemware, including Eisch Vin Tec “breathable” glasses.

Tastings at Vino 100 are complimentary because they are sponsored by Desert Springs Tile Stone & Supply of Desert Hot Springs.

All these opportunities didn’t exist even a couple years ago, but Tulip Hill’s Kristi Brown thought the desert resort area was ripe for wine-tasting venues when she moved here five years ago.

“I looked at the community, the people, the homes. … You know they’re wine drinkers, and I couldn’t believe there
wasn’t anything [like that],” she says. “I always thought … it would be something that somebody on a weekend could do: go around wine-tasting.”

Like her fellow wine-business owners, Brown says a large part of the goal in offering tastings is knowledge.

“I always wanted to demystify wine for people and take the intimidation factor away,” she says, “because, unfortunately, a lot of people who are curious about wine can be intimated by it. They don’t know how to pronounce it or they see all the hoopla that accompanies it in restaurants. … We can inform them about wine … so they can enjoy it more.

“It’s really letting people know that it’s enjoyable and interesting at the same time. It can become a passion.”


  • Cinema Lounge
    Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 325-6565
  • Dan’s Wine Shop
    73-360 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 674-0305
  • Desert Discount Wines, Spirits & Gifts
    Sun Center, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 327-7701
  • Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
    The River at Rancho Mirage, 71-800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 776-6685
  • Palm Springs Wine & Art
    242 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, 325-9991
  • P.S. Wine
    333 S. Indian Canyon Drive, Suite E, Palm Springs; 322-4411
  • Tastings
    69-930 Highway 111, Suite 120, Rancho Mirage, 324-4044, (310) 455-6037
  • Tulip Hill Winery
    The River at Rancho Mirage, 71-800 Highway 111, A125, Rancho Mirage, 568-5678
  • Vino 100
    68-718 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 203, Cathedral City, CA 92234; 321-5478 

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