This guest post on 8 Tips to Demystify Wine Tasting was written by our guide architect, Jim Fatzinger. He and his wife owned a condo in Windsor for 7 years and lived there full-time for 3 of those years. So, we are lucky to get these insider tips. If you are planning a trip out west, you won’t want to miss this one. *Note: all wineries mentioned are in Sonoma County, CA*
For even more help planning the perfect trip to Sonoma, be sure to check out Jim’s guide, Sonoma County for Oenophiles. This guide has been written to save you far more than the price of purchase! If this is your first visit to Sonoma County, it would also be an indispensable time-saver. Advance planning and mapping out a daily route will help you get the most out of your trip.
Tip #1: Minimize time and distance between stops on your itinerary
The first thing to realize is that Sonoma County covers a sizable chunk of real estate. At 1,768 square miles, it is 46% larger than the state of Rhode Island! This fact alone makes it imperative to do some advance planning to avoid spending more time driving between wineries and other attractions than you spend enjoying those wineries and attractions!
Tip #2: Decide whether you are going to do the driving or hire a driver
There really are only 2 practical options for getting around Sonoma County: driving (renting a car from your arrival airport or, if your visit is part of a road trip, your own vehicle) or hiring a driver/touring service. If you want to participate fully in more than a couple wine tastings per day and don’t have a designated driver in your party, it would be a smart idea to hire a driver/touring service; 5 that come highly recommended by wineries and previous customers are suggested in the “Sonoma County for Oenophiles” (= wine lovers) guide.
Tip #3: Focus your tasting on the wines you like
U.S. Highway 101 transects Sonoma County from Petaluma in the south to Cloverdale in the north. Intersecting east-west highways (12, 116 and 128) take you, respectively, through the Valley of the Moon to the town of Sonoma, to the coast and scenic Highway 1and to the northern end of Napa Valley. Sonoma County’s diverse geography and climate create 18 distinct wine-growing regions known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are frequently referred to as “appellations.” If you have some specific wine preferences, reading up on Sonoma County’s AVAs can help you decide where you want to concentrate your time.
Tip #4: Get the most for your wine tasting dollar
Free wine tasting is increasingly rare. A wine tasting may run anywhere from $10 to $100 or more, depending on whether you are sampling the winery’s “standard” lineup or its “reserve” (smaller production) wines, whether the wines you taste are paired with food, etc. Thus, it is more important than ever to know how to get the most out of your wine tasting dollar. The “Sonoma County for Oenophiles” guide includes:
- links to 4 wine tasting passes that will save you anywhere from $30 to $100/day (based on visiting 3 wineries/day),
- a list of 50 wineries where you can get 2-for-1 or discounted tasting/purchases at 50 Sonoma County wineries just for paying with a credit card you may already have in your wallet or purse and
- links to 2 food and wine pairing experiences designed just for and available only to purchasers of the guide which will save you $40.
Tip #5: Schedule your visit around a wine tasting event
Another excellent way to upgrade your wine tasting experience is to plan your visit around one of Sonoma County’s annual wine tasting events; here are some of the best:
- Winter Wineland happens in January (tentatively scheduled for January 23 & 24, 2021). Participating wineries usually offer something “extra” – they may highlight a varietal, offer a “vertical” tasting (multiple vintages of the same wine), serve small bites, etc.
- Barrel Tasting traditionally has been a 3-day event held the first 2 weekends in March. As the name implies, at this event, you can taste wines before they are bottled and buy “futures” — often at a significant discount.
- Passport to Dry Creek Valley is scheduled to return April 24-25 in 2021. Passport features food and wine pairings in what I find to be the most beautiful valley in Sonoma County.
- Experience Anderson Valley is scheduled to return June 26-27 in 2021.This event, as its name implies, is organized around small group “experiences.” You may play a game of bocce, make ravioli or attend a blending seminar.
- At Taste of Sonoma (Labor Day weekend), attendees circulate among dozens of wineries offering food and wine pairings at a single location (Kendall Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens in 2021). Visa Signature card holders get ticket discounts, access to the Visa Signature Lounge at the event and preferred seating at event seminars and demonstrations.
- Wine and Food Affair (first week in November) is my favorite wine tasting event. Participating wineries highlight one or more wines selected to pair with a “small bite” to demonstrate how food and wine complement each other. Once the program is announced, it is possible to plan your own progressive meal, beginning with an appetizer at your first winery of the day and ending with dessert at your last!
Tip #6: “Chat up” your tasting room host/wine educator
S/he is much more than a human dispenser of fermented grape juice! Being chatty often results in extra pours and, in any event, makes a lot of sense because your host knows a lot more about the wines on the tasting menu than you do. And when you’ve finished your tasting, ask her/him whether, based on what s/he has learned about your preferences, s/he can refer you to any other wineries. Referral passes often offer free or discounted tasting!
Tip #7: Consider joining a wine club
At the risk of stating the obvious, wineries do wine tasting in order to sell wine and all offer some way of continuing to continue getting their wines (assuming you enjoy them!) once you leave the tasting room. Typically, wineries offer a 10% to 25% discount (the higher the number of bottles to which you commit, the bigger the discount) on purchases as a club member and some offer an even bigger discount on the day you join. Ask about customization (whether you can select the wines in your club shipments) and shipping costs (which add to the per bottle price). Often, this is the only way of getting the wines you tasted once you return home.
Tip #8: Ask about the impact of COVID-19
What the long-term impact of COVID-19 will have on Sonoma County tourism is anyone’s guess. But, since Wild Bum is committed to providing, to the extent possible, accurate and current information for readers of its guides, it is important to mention steps local and state government as well as the hospitality industry have taken to protect the health and safety of visitors and staff. When planning a visit, you are advised to consult the Sonoma County Tourism web page and the “What’s Open” page on the County of Sonoma’s website.