Even if you’ve never been to California, odds are that you’ve tasted it.
Two out of every three bottles of wine sold in the United States are California wines. The nation’s top wine producer, California makes 90 percent of all U.S. wine. The state also ranks as the fourth leading wine producer in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain.
Its climate and topography make California ideally suited for grape growing—and also a breathtakingly beautiful vacation destination. More than 19 million people visit California wine country each year and discover that there’s much to do beyond tasting wine. Each of the nearly two-dozen different wine regions in California offers unique cultural, historic, natural and culinary treasures to explore.
But since any trip to wine country wouldn’t be complete without a winery visit, for tips about what to expect we talked to experts from Sonoma County. One of California’s most diverse and notorious wine regions, Sonoma County boasts over 250 wineries, 60,000 acres planted in vines and an annual wine production of more than 30 million gallons.
Ready, Set, Go
If you’re a wine novice, the thought of visiting a winery may seem intimidating. Fear not. “The wine industry is not this big snobby industry,” says Rene Byck, vice president and proprietor of Paradise Ridge Winery. “The whole hope of people who work in wineries and tasting rooms is that more people will enjoy wine and drink wine. Our philosophy is really to educate people that wine is something to be enjoyed by everybody. It’s one reason there are wines in different price categories.”
Since first-hand experience is the best way to learn, the full range of winery visitors includes first-timers as well as connoisseurs. Winery staff members are prepared to answer any level of question from how to pronounce Sauvignon to the finer points of malolactic fermentation. You’ll feel welcome, no matter your level of experience.
Make A Plan
“The first thing people need to think about is what type of wine they want to taste,” says Gregory Nemrow, hospitality director for Audelssa Estate Winery. If you only want to taste whites, you may want to skip a winery that only makes red wines.
Since choosing which wineries to visit and planning a route can be daunting, “the most beneficial thing,” says Henry Belmonte, owner of VJB Vineyards & Cellars—adding that he’s “not a guy who likes to read directions”—is to “first visit the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. They’ll take you by the hand, assess your level of wine knowledge and interests, and formulate directions for you. They’re absolutely wonderful people; you’ll be in good hands.”
A plan has its advantages, sure, but if you’re the spontaneous type of vacationer who wants to hop in the car, drive down the road and stop at places that look interesting, well, that works, too. Just be prepared: Not all wineries are open to the public and some require advance reservations.
Wineries that are open to the public often have tasting rooms that are commonly set up like a bar. Upon entering you’ll likely be greeted by a staff member, whether he or she is behind a cash register, busy pouring samples of wine for other visitors or straightening up displays of wine and other items that are for sale.
The cost of wine tasting may be complimentary or up to $25 or more and what’s included in the cost varies. While each winery sets its own price and terms, fees most commonly range between $5 and $15 for three to six different wines and are often refunded with a wine purchase.
Menus, whether printed on paper or posted on a chalkboard, let you know which wines are available for tasting. Make a selection or ask for recommendations, but in general wine tastings progress from white to red and from dry to sweet.
Don’t be shy. If you’re able to taste three wines but are only interested in one, speak up. Likewise, if you’re looking for something in particular but don’t see it on the menu, ask. It might be available; if not, the staff can send you in the right direction.
As you taste, staff members will likely share insights and stories about the wines. “Stories are very much a part of the wine experience,” says Belmonte.
Pomp and circumstance isn’t necessary, so don’t obsess over technique. Swirl and sniff before sipping if you want to. But “don’t feel obligated to spit,” says Nemrow. “Most casual tasters swallow.”
Winery tours provide an in-depth, behind-the-scenes experience and are sometimes available at wineries that are not otherwise open to the public or as an add-on to a tasting room experience. Tours can be complimentary or cost up to $50 or more and last an hour or longer. “The reason for the higher cost,” says Nemrow, “is it’s a private appointment with a staff member or winemaker who is taking time away from other duties for the tour.”
What’s involved in tours varies by winery, but they often include a historical overview with anecdotes about the winery’s founders, a vine-to-bottle summary of the production process, a vineyard tour with predictions about the current crop and a facility tour. Some tours also include barrel or reserve wine tastings.
Large wineries may host several tours a day according to a regular schedule. “We’ll run six to 15 tours in one day during the summer,” says Sam Schlabach, tasting room manager for Korbel. But since most wineries don’t maintain such a rigorous tour schedule, calling ahead for reservations is recommended.
To encourage guests to extend their visit beyond the wine tasting, many wineries offer a variety of amenities such as gardens, art exhibitions, historic displays, educational wine exhibits, delis or restaurants, gift shops, picnic grounds, observation decks and also host special events and festivals. Visiting a winery can last a few minutes or a few hours, depending on what piques your interest.
The whole purpose of tasting wine is to discover what you like. But “you should never feel compelled to buy a wine if you don’t like it,” says Nemrow. Buy what you like, though etiquette suggests that only a winery’s wines are consumed on that winery’s property (including picnic grounds) and that after a private tour or private tasting it’s customary to buy a case or more.
When visiting a winery “expect an experience,” says Belmonte. “It’s about creating a relationship and a connection with something or someone. You may walk in as strangers, but you will become guests and maybe become like family.”
Sonoma County: Quick Facts
Sonoma County is less than 30 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Sonoma County encompasses more than 1,500 square miles and boasts over 50 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.
With over 40 spas in Sonoma County, it’s possible to relax in natural thermal springs, mud baths and the only Japanese-style cedar enzyme bath in the U.S.
Sonoma County attractions include whale watching, the Charles M. Schulz Museum of Peanuts Characters, 18 golf courses, Infineon Raceway, Safari West Wildlife Preserve, 27 state historical landmarks, 13 state parks and more.
The more than 500 restaurants in Sonoma County range from five-star to casual and feature cuisine from around the world.
Sonoma County is part of the North Coast American Viticultural Area and has 13 distinct appellations: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Green Valley, Knights Valley, Los Carneros, Northern Sonoma, Rockpile, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain.
Though Sonoma County produces over 72 varieties of grapes, Chardonnay is the most popular grape and is planted on 16,000 acres; Cabernet Sauvignon is second-most popular on 12,000 acres.
Sonoma County Tourism Bureau
Sonoma County Vintners, www.sonomawine.com
Sonoma County Vintners and Growers Alliance, www.sonomavalleywine.com
Welcome to California: The Land of Wine and Food, www.landoffoodandwine.com
Lodi and The Delta
Marin and Solano
Monterey and San Benito
Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo
San Diego County
San Francisco Bay
San Joaquin Valley
Santa Barbara County
Santa Cruz Mountains
Top photo courtesy of Eric Luse/Eric Ross Winery
Hope S. Philbrick is a freelance writer because she doesn’t think work and fun should be mutually exclusive. For more of Hope’s writing on food, wine and travel visit her blog at www.insathope.blogspot.com.