A California wine country primer

Sonoma County’s wineries have come a long way since the days when visitors stood in converted storerooms tasting from a couple bottles of wine served by a guy in rubber boots. Today, most of the nearly 200 wineries in this Northern California oenophile Mecca are going out of their way to make wine tasting a pleasant and educational experience. So much so, in fact, that it can be overwhelming.

Many wineries rely on tourism as a significant source of revenue and spare no expense in creating elaborate visitors’ centers. There are so many visitors’ centers and kiosks offering “information” that you could end up confused. If you’re thinking of visiting Sonoma, it’s best to do some planning. Most wineries have Web sites with lots of information about their products and operations. A good place to begin is at the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau and Sonoma County Tourism Program Web sites. The rest, I can help with.

Go in off season

Spring brings green vineyards, crisp air and fewer tour buses than during the crowded summer months. “Bud break” (when the first shoots emerge on a grapevine after winter dormancy) begins around the spring equinox and continues through Memorial Day. Wines for spring release are usually available for tasting, some even before they’re available to the public.

September and October tend to be busier than spring–though not nearly as crowded as summer–and there is more going on at the wineries during these harvest and crush months.

Regardless of the season, the best day to visit a winery is one in the
middle of the week and the best time is during the morning or midday hours. Tasting rooms are usually less hectic and the pouring staffs will have more time to spend with you.

Stay nearby

Reasonably priced accommodations in the Sonoma Valley are readily
available–if you make reservations well in advance. Try the modestly-priced The Sonoma Valley Inn in Sonoma or the Flamingo Resort Hotel in Santa Rosa. If your budget is less constrained, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma is a good choice. There is also a nice
selection of B&B’s located throughout the Sonoma Valley.

Optimize your experience

Plan to visit no more than four wineries a day. With most tasting rooms charging for tasting these days ($5 to $10 on average), wine tasting can get pricy–and you’ll find yourself pooped and in need of a mid-afternoon, wine-induced nap to boot.

Oh by the way, if you see tour buses standing in a parking lot at a winery, make a U-turn and head off to the next stop on your list.

Take a tour

Most wineries offer a tour of one sort or another. Generally they are
pleasant enough; it’s just that, after entertaining thousands of visitors, some tours can seem a little too mechanical. A few wineries even show a videotaped presentation as their “tour.” One exception is at Benziger Winery where you can get what Wine Spectator calls “maybe the most comprehensive vineyard visit offered by any winery in California.”
My wife concurs. Not bad testimonials.

Come off like an enophile

Intimidated about wine because of a lack of familiarity with its
terminology? You are far from alone. Very few of us–me included–are prepared to discuss such technicalities as the malolactic fermentation process. Nevertheless if you arm yourself with just a few enological terms (you already know “bud break”) you will get much more out of your visit.

Here’s a crib sheet to get you going:

Appellation — A protected name under which a wine may be sold, indicating that the grapes used are of a specific kind from a specific district.

Aroma — Simply, the scent.

Nose — The characteristic smell of a wine; its bouquet.

Palate — The sense of taste.

Reserve — A wine that a winery considers “special.” Usually a higher
quality–and higher priced–product.

Varietal — A wine made principally from one variety of grape and carrying the name of that grape.

Get your purchases home

If you choose to ship wine home, you may find a legal impediment–a vestige of Prohibition which is still being played out in federal courts. Most wineries will know where they can and can’t ship their products, but you can also check the shipping page on the Wine Intro Web site to see where your state fits in.

Take a break

Take an occasional break from doing the winery “thing.” For instance, pick up a deli sandwich at a local market and have a picnic along your route. Or take a stroll through historic downtown Sonoma–in 1846 Sonoma was capital of the Republic of California. There you will find the Mission San Francisco Solano, the last of the California missions.

Or take a hike in the hidden treasure of Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. Located about 20 minutes north of Sonoma, this 800-acre site was the home of the writer for whom the park is named. He lived here from 1905 until he died in 1916. Following his death, London’s wife, Charmian, lived here until her death in 1955. The east-facing view from the park toward the Mayacamas mountain range (which separates Napa from Sonoma) is both splendid and peaceful.


While I’m at it: if your cup of tea is getting up before the crack of dawn, being ever alert to changing weather conditions, negotiation high-voltage power lines and forking out a bundle of dough, perhaps it is for you, but hot air ballooning, one of the most “touristy” activities in wine country, is not for me.

My favorite

Finally, as you may have guessed from my “winery tour” comment above, The Benziger Winery is my favorite. It is casual, unfussy, fun and educational. Take the $10 tour. You’ll learn about winemaking and be treated to the tastes of some fine reserve wines (hey, there’s one of those terms already)–and it is a great spot for a picnic.