A Primer for Neophyte Oenophiles
Wine tasting. Just the sound of it can make you feel all indulgent and romantic. But it’s not that simple. What If I said there were one hundred wineries within a 10 mile radius of where you are standing right now? Many of them you’ve never heard of. And, the majority of them will have very good offerings–some award winning. Now what? That’s where we found ourselves earlier this week.
Our “wino base camp” was Santa Rosa, fairly central to the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys and many other regions in Sonoma County. I chose Santa Rosa because there really are hundreds of wineries nearby. One or two I’d actually heard of. Other than that, we were flying blind. But you don’t have to. Here are five tips for the rookie wine taster:
Tip 1: Find a Collective: The first bit of advice came from the hotel concierge: start at a collective. At first we thought it was some kind of kickback setup but it turns out that Cellars of Sonoma was the real deal. We got a list of several local and boutique wines to chose from and it set the tone for who’s making what where.
Tip 2: Ask Locals: The next thing we learned quickly is that everyone making and serving wine has an opinion on where to go next. If you like what they are serving, listen. In some cases, we found we were sitting next to vintners or restauranteurs with a wealth of knowledge.
Tip 3: Plan to Buy: With a few good tastings under your belt and some local knowledge, you can start to pick some wineries. In general, tastings average $5 to $10 (or more) per person. But, many–if not all–will waive the tasting fees if you buy a bottle. If you have been doing things right and listening to the locals, you’ll probably want what they’re selling.
Tip 4: Brown Bag It: Here’s where that “romantic” part kicks in. You’re touring through some of the most beautiful regions in California, winding along fields of vines and river valleys. Sounds like the most amazing picnic waiting to happen. Many wineries will sell you some prepackaged cheese, salami, etc., but if you thought ahead, you could have that in the trunk. We did. We hit Trader Joe’s near the hotel and stocked up on grapes, cheese, salami, a baguette and some olive tapenade. Ask the winery for a glass of wine to take out to the picnic tables and, voila, you are romantic.
Tip 5: Grocers Have Deals: Maybe you are like us and avoid the “big” wineries in lieu of the smaller family-run spots. That doesn’t mean there aren’t deals on those big names. Most grocers have much better pricing on the local wines than we get outside the region. We spotted several bottles at nearly half the price we pay for them here in San Diego.
Lastly, our picks for a perfect Sonoma wine-tasting weekend look like this:
Cellars of Sonoma collective: Standouts were the James Family Coastal Pinot Noir, the Gann Cellars Zinfandel.
Healdsburg: Hawley tasting room, lunch at Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar and dessert to go at Mustache Baked Goods
Russian River Brewing: Because it’s not ALL about wine up there. Try the barrel aged sours: Supplication, Salvation and Consecration.
Petite Syrah Restaurant: Cheese board to die for, roasted green olives, very well curated local wine list.
Truett Hurst Winery: Fantastic wine, beautiful gardens, and a picnic spot waiting for you on Dry Creek. (Photo above)
Cheers and happy tasting!