The first two weekends in March witnessed the 35th Annual Barrel Tasting Wine Road – Northern Sonoma County take place in the sun-splashed hills and valleys of the three Wine Road American Viticulture Areas (AVAs – Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley). Thousands of wine aficionados from around the country circulated among the approximately 120 participating wineries over the 6 afternoons (many wineries included the two Fridays) that the event encompassed.
The Wine Road – Northern Sonoma County has ~200 members including 150 wineries and 50 lodging establishments. The organization sponsors and organizes three events each year beginning with Winter WINEland in January and ending with A Wine and Food Affair in early November. Although A Wine and Food Affair is considered their premier event, the Barrel Tasting weekends are the longest running and the most popular in terms of attendance over the 6 days. No single event in the north county can compete for fun, adventure and great wine deals. It also offers the most likely contact with the winemakers as they are typically offering the barrel samples.
Barrel tasting weekends are not overwhelmed with themes and music and food (although many wineries do offer palate treats) as the focus is truly on the wine. Most wineries offer the chance to taste and purchase futures (wine in barrel from previous harvests but not yet bottled) at a discount. Purchasers may have to wait 6-18 months to actually get their wine. Because so many of the participating wineries are small and have limited production this is often the only opportunity for non-wine club members to actual acquire these special wines.
The Wine Road’s 3 AVAs are spread out over a large segment of SonmaCounty so it helps to use the Wine Road map to do a route plan that avoids running back and forth between the 3 AVAs or back tracking. Additionally, planning should include lunch as the event extends from 11AM – 4PM each day. Many wineries offer some food, as reported above, it is mostly lighter fare. Picnics are possible at many of the wineries and there is always the Oakville Grocery Co., or Dry Creek General Store to purchase picnic supplies. Alternatively Barndiva, Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar, Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar, or Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg are available for a casual quick bite. Costeaux French Bakery was the restaurant of choice this year with its French bakery and café ambiance and very welcoming staff. Food is fresh, beautifully presented and priced right.
Meanwhile, the Top Five Reasons to participate in The Wine Road Barrel Tasting weekend are :
A. Rafanelli Winery is located in the Dry Creek Valley and is a fourth generation family operation begun by great grandfather Alberto Rafanelli, an Italian emigrant, in the early 1900s and passed through his son Americo, and then to current owners Dave and Patty Rafanelli. Daughter Shelly is the winemaker and responsible for all production at the winery and her husband Craig Fehlman handles vineyard management. Younger daughter Stacy is in charge of daily operations at the winery continuing this family tradition. A.Rafanelli specializes in Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Tasting and visits are by appointment only and the 11,000 case production is in allocation for non-wine club members. These wines are rich, exceptionally well balanced and full of fruit. This winery has the longest lines during barrel tasting due to the high quality and limited availability of the wines produced from their 85 planted acres. A must visit. Call 707-433-1385.
Another family operation is located just down Dry Creek Road at Everett Ridge Winery. The Sterling family, lead by father Murio and mom Doris, has been growing grapes and making wine for several generations. Besides Everett Ridge the family owns Esterlina Winery, (spanish for sterling) in the Anderson Valley and 253 acre Cole Ranch (Mendocino County), America’s smallest AVA, where they grow Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. Besides Cole Ranch the family owns vineyards in the Alexander Valley, the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Everett Ridge specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. They have a second label called Diablita Wines. Four Sterling brothers (a Physician and an Attorney included) are actively involved. Eric is lead winemaker, Stephen heads up sales & marketing, Chris – vineyard management and assistant winemaker and Craig handles legal affairs and assists in sales. The best of the barrel samples were the Esterlina 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the Everett Ridge 2012 Dry Creek Valley Estate Petite Sirah. The best in bottle was the Esterlina 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir! The wines are all very approachable and reflect the warmth of this remarkable and down to earth family.
The ‘newest find’ during this year’s barrel tasting was J.Rickards Vineyards and Winery located on Chianti Road just south of Cloverdale (northern Sonoma County) and visible from Highway 101. The original Zinfandel vines on this 60 acre estate were planted in 1908 and have been augmented over the past 30 years with fresh plantings. Jim has owned the ranch since 1976 and since 2005 he and wife Eliza have been making wine commercially. They have typically sold most of their grapes ( Cabernet Sauvignon to Silver Oak – next door, Shiraz to GeyserPeak – just a bit south, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah to Dry Creek Vineyards and Winery – just west and a bit south). Barrel samples of the 2011 & 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel were both delectable and foreshadowed good things when bottled. The bottled 2009 and 2010 validated that forecast. The newly released 2012 Muscat Blanc and 2012 Rosé were perfect spring and summer wines. The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment. Call 707-758-3441.
Brothers Jack and William Salerno founded Manzanita Creek Winery in an industrial facility in Healdsburg in 2001. They source their grapes, the “best grapes, grown in the best vineyards” from Sonoma County including Dry Creek, Russian River, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast. They also source grapes from Lodi and Paso Robles. The Salernos produce about 3,000 cases of varietal wine including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. The barrel samples of 2012 Russian River Zinfandel, Chalk Hill Zinfandel and Russian River Syrah were all well structured and hinting at rich robust flavors when bottled. Their 2nd label, 3 Vines, is available at Costco. The tasting room is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 – 4:00 pm. Sunday through Tuesday by appointment only. These wines and this winery are ‘never boring’!
Winemaker John Pepe has been the artistic interpreter of Bruce and Cheryl Lawton’s romantic vision of all things wine at their Pech Merle Winery. Named after a cave in France where their vision began taking shape, the Lawton’s continue their passion through all aspects of their winery, their wine club and their wines using terms like devoted, flirtatious and smitten. Their wines were awarded three Silver medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Recognized were the 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($39), the 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir ($33) and the 2010 Russian River Chardonnay ($27). The barrel sample offered during the Barrel Tasting weekend: the 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Franc, the 2012 Russian River (Oehlman) Pinot Noir and the 2012 Dry Creek Valley (Alioto’s Bench) Zinfandel all showed huge potential. Pech Merle’s tasting room is located at J.Rickards in Cloverdale, Friday and Saturday 11 – 4:30 or by appointment 707-891-3015.
Make it a point to enjoy Wine Road’s 2014 barrel tasting weekends. Remember, the first two weekends in March!