When I first started going to California Wine Country (at that time, mostly Napa Valley), you could still taste wine for free and good, inexpensive bottles were available for purchase onsite. Since then, over-tourism, competition, and massive growth in the number of wineries and planted acres have raised prices for tastings and bottles. To get the most out of the experience, we need to embrace the winery visit and not just the wine.
Embrace the experience
Beyond the wine, at many wineries, you can amuse yourself with the following:
|Food trucks||Swim Club with cabanas|
|Live music||Horseshoes, Bocce|
|On-site dining||Corn hole|
|Picnics||Wine blending classes|
|Winery tours||Classes on wine tasting|
|Art collection||Cooking classes|
You can visit quaint towns and stay in quaint B&Bs, eat at world-class restaurants. All in all, it’s an adult amusement park.
Our recent winery visits in Paso Robles and Sonoma California were under cloudy and rainy skies, severely limiting our ability to maximize our experience. We enjoyed our visits, but my new thinking will influence how we approach wine tasting in the future. I am especially interested in how the experience and value compare to the European wineries we will be visiting.
Launched in 1999 as a way for a successful couple from Minnesota to throw parties in a vineyard, Robert Hall Winery was acquired by a larger vintner in 2016. The parties have mellowed and the quality and price of the wine have grown since then. It was a rainy Wednesday in early December when we visited, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We have always found something we liked there, and this time was no exception. We left with bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and two bottles of Zinfandel.
On days with better weather, bocce and other lawn games are available as well as cellar tours.
We wanted to hit someplace new for our second Paso Robles winery. Jada Winery was very well rated on Google and not too far away, so we decided to give it try. Again, we had the place to ourselves. Founded by a doctor from Brooklyn, the wines produced are decidedly on the more expensive side. The estate is picturesque, as are many vineyards. Not much to do other than taste and take a tour.
The wines were quite good and we especially liked the cheese pairing they offered. It came as a small package of cheeses curated by a local shop owner to go with the tasting menu. This struck me as a brilliant stroke of cross-marketing that really served to enhance the experience. We walked out with a bottle of Tannat, a rare Basque varietal. However, we were disappointed when they didn’t wave at least one of our tasting fees for buying a bottle.
We decided to stay with some friends in Windsor (Sonoma County) for a few nights prior to heading to Utah to ski. They have a strong connection to the wine industry, especially since their son is the winemaker at Armida. We were very grateful when they took us around the area. We went to some wineries we would never have found on our own and had the pleasure of their company all day!
Nestled in a quaint valley near Healdsburg, Soda Rock Winery was destroyed in the Kincaid Fire in October of last year. Afterward, they converted a barn into a makeshift tasting room. The grounds are a sobering reminder of the ferocity of nature. The best way to help them and other fire victims are to come out for a visit, so that’s what we did. The wines were good, but nothing quite tickled our fancy. Still, we enjoyed our time there and look forward to a return visit to see how things progress and to show our support.
Our final winery this time around was Leo Steen, which is located in a refurbished warehouse in Healdsburg. Wine production originated there in the early 1900s. Today, 11 different wineries share the facility. The winery is a one-man-show run by Leo Hansen (Steen is his middle name). Leo was “raised in Denmark, and as the son of a chef and hotelier, “food and wine have always been a passionate part of my life,” he told us.
We had a pleasant time with him during our tasting, which was done by appointment. Again, the wines were quite nice. We left a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Given the size and location of the shop, there was not much in the way of extra activities. In the future, we might like to go to the periodic winemaker dinners, if we happen to be nearby.
Maximizing the Experience
Through this recent round of winery visits, Diana and I have concluded that visiting wineries is really more than simply sampling the fruit of the vine. Many wine shops now offer wine tasting, so we will seek out wineries that can enhance our experience. Going forward, we will be looking at what else we might do onsite, such as a picnic, bocce or live music.
Where do you like to experience wine tasting?