Over the past seven months, Sonoma wineries have been busy adjusting to coronavirus restrictions. No longer able to host visitors indoors, many have modified their patios, great lawns, walkways and even parking lots to accommodate seated tastings outdoors. Those changes, plus virtual tastings, online wine sales and free delivery, have kept many wineries in business.
But it’s now mid-November. Much-needed rain has started to fall and temperatures are dropping. For now, there’s no retreating inside to toasty tasting rooms warmed by fireplaces and decorated for the holidays. However, with the Thanksgiving weekend ahead, wineries are again adapting to conditions by looking to tents, canopies, space heaters and plush blankets to make their guests as comfortable as possible.
For Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, being limited to outdoor tastings is not a big deal. Year-around, her family’s wines are poured outdoors; there is no indoor tasting room. There is, however, a magnificent view to the east of the Mayacamas Mountains, sometimes dusted with snow. Four walls would deprive visitors of the full-view beauty of the place. Heaters and farm-market-style tents are always on hand for chilly, rainy days and have been dusted off for the looming winter weather.
It’s a bit more lavish at Muscardini Cellars in Sonoma Valley, which has taken on the coronavirus challenges with a Winter Wonderland Tent for tastings and pairings and a Meet Your Palate tasting experience (Nov. 21-22), featuring a blind tasting of wines that are great mates for the Thanksgiving table.
These Sonoma wineries have scrambled yet again to host visitors under COVID restrictions, offering cozy rather than chilly receptions in trying circumstances. Remember to make a reservation in advance.
Alexander Valley Vineyards
Like many longtime wineries, Alexander Valley Vineyards relied on indoor tastings at its cozy bar, conducive to collegial conversation. COVID forced tastings to be moved to the covered outdoor porch, though the comfortable vibe continues. During chilly weather, each table will have a pyramid patio propane heater to ward off the cold. Space is limited to four tables, with a maximum six guests per table, for the Estate and Reserve tastings. Cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel are the calling cards, and estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir do well in Alexander Valley’s typically warm climate, with vines cooled by the Russian River.
8644 Hwy 128, Healdsburg. 707-433-7209 x116, avvwine.com
Winemaker and partner Mike Sullivan excels at producing so many varietals that it’s difficult to choose favorites. Chardonnay and pinot noir, grenache and zinfandel and sophisticated sparkling wines are all outstanding. Taste a selection of them at the winery’s Ranch House on the Martaella Estate Vineyard in Russian River Valley. Alfresco tastings at Benovia are hosted on a deck that wraps around the Ranch House and offers views of Mount St. Helena. Benovia has added awnings, space heaters and blankets for visitors.
3339 Hartman Road, Santa Rosa, 707-921-1040, benoviawinery.com
By appointment, Diane and John Bucher pour their Russian River Valley estate-grown wines at Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor. “We roll up our beautiful glass doors, position a large heater in the open doorway and guests can be a few feet inside our salons and enjoy tasting,” Diane Bucher said. “As there is plenty of fresh air, we encourage guests to dress warmly.” The Buchers grow pinot noir in the Middle Reach area of Russian River Valley, with the wines made by Adam Lee of Siduri Wines fame. All the pinots (and a late-harvest sauvignon blanc) are big-flavored and juicy; if it’s available, don’t miss tasting the 2018 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir.
Grand Cru Custom Crush, 1200 American Way, Windsor, 707-484-5162, bucher.wine/our-wines/taste
Wineries along Westside Road southwest of Healdsburg get more than their share of attention. After all, Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell, MacRostie and Flowers are here. But don’t forget about Eastside Road, which parallels Westside Road along the Russian River, and Copain Wines. The winery overlooks the river and produces site-specific chardonnays, pinot noirs and syrahs. Guests sit at private outdoor tables; in cold and/or rainy weather, seatings are in covered, heated areas.
7800 Eastside Road, Healdsburg, 707-836-8822, copainwines.com
Chalk Hill Estate Winery
Rain or shine, this Windsor estate offers tastings as well as wine and food pairings, including the “Fried Chicken & Caviar Chardonnay Pairing for Two.” Current tastings are on the patio, with tents pitched for inclement weather. At press time, Chalk Hill was poised to move winter wine and culinary experiences to a former dressage horse riding arena, with its covered roof and open-air sides. It’s now an elegant space, repurposed by owner Bill Foley from previous owner Peggy Furth’s equally grand equine center.
10300 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, 707-657-1809, chalkhill.com
Dry Creek Vineyard
Kim Stare Wallace and her team, which includes winemaker Tim Bell, continue to produce excellent-value wines, after Stare Wallace’s father, Dave, founded the winery in 1972. Sauvignon blanc and zinfandel are strong suits, and the merlots, cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends over-deliver for their price. Blessed with a large lawn in front of the tasting room, Dry Creek Vineyard offers outdoor seated tastings there by appointment when the weather is dry; a tented area with socially distant seating is available for rainy days. Blankets are available for chilly days.
3770 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-1000, drycreekvineyard.com
Iron Horse Vineyards
Some of the finest sparkling wines from California, as well as elegant chardonnays and pinot noir table wines, are produced by the Sterling family at Iron Horse. The wines can be tasted at the outdoor tasting “room” with views of Mount St. Helena. There is also physically distanced seating in a gazebo for bottle purchases, with an option to pre-order picnic-style meals from Big Bottom Market in Guerneville. Don’t miss the biscuits; they pair beautifully with the Classic Vintage Brut bubbly.
9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507, ironhorsevineyards.com
Walking tours of the Petaluma Gap estate, with its vineyards, outdoor artwork, olive groves and south-facing views, are an invigorating part of each visit, unless it’s raining. In that case, Ana Keller and her team move the experience to the Classic Collection Room, with its wide double doors open to the view of the vineyards and perhaps a classic car in the background. Tastings of Keller’s chardonnays, pinot noirs, rosés and sparkling wines (and an deep, earthy, under-the-radar syrah-based wine called Rotie) are intimate, with one small party per time slot. Through Dec. 5, guests who bring a lightly used winter coat, to be donated to Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, receive two tastings for the price of one.
5875 Lakeville Highway, Petaluma, 707-765-2117, kellerestate.com
La Crema Estate
Jackson Family Wines’ revitalization of the Saralee’s Vineyard site in Russian River Valley was designed to take advantage of this grand outdoor location, with additional tastings indoors of the chardonnays and pinot noirs. The winery’s outdoor patios come into play during the pandemic, with their high plexiglas screens providing overhead coverage from rain and limiting direct wind gusts on guests. Fresh air flows though the seating areas, and heaters are there for warmth.
3575 Slusser Road, Windsor, 707-525-6200, lacrema.com
Ledson Vineyards & Winery
Steve Ledson has been known to throw a tent event or two on his Kenwood estate. His winery building, known as the Castle, has several indoor tasting areas, but a tent has been used for special events for years, and it has come in handy during pandemic times. The tent is heated for cold-weather visits, and guests can order fresh sandwiches and cheese and charcuterie plates from Ledson’s Gourmet Marketplace. The list of wines produced is lengthy, with a bottle for every taste.
7335 Highway 12, Kenwood, 707-537-3810, ledson.com
Mike Muscardini’s cabernet sauvignons and Italian-style red wines are big, bold and ideal for enjoying in late fall and winter. His Winter Wonderland Tent, which opened Nov. 7 and runs into early 2021, is decked with 2,000 sparkling lights and silver snowflakes, with a selection of olive oils, chocolates and other treats for sale. Several sensory experiences are offered by appointment, including a blind tasting of wines that are great mates for the Thanksgiving table (Nov. 21-22) and a chocolate-with-wine pairing session of Muscardini wines with sweets created by master chocolatier Sebastian Beline (Dec. 5-Feb. 28, 2021).
9380 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-933-9305, muscardinicellars.com
Papapietro Perry Winery
This pinot noir specialist, previously offering traditional tastings at its indoor bar, expanded and covered its outdoor deck just before the pandemic hit. It was a prescient move, as the Dry Creek Valley winery has been able to host visitors outside since March, physically distanced. Heaters are at the ready for chilly days, and logo blankets are sold for additional warmth. Tastings include five wines; charcuterie boards can be added for additional cost.
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-0422, papapietro-perry.com
This 90-year-old winery has weathered many a storm, including wars, Prohibition and depressions. As a family-owned winery, it’s tackled coronavirus with determination, now with the purchase of a tent for sheltered outdoor winter tastings and the addition of space heaters. Plush logo blankets are sold at winery cost to guests, and flights have been developed (Elegant Pursuits, Pedroncelli Starters and others) so visitors can choose a flight at the time of booking and have it ready upon arrival. Pedroncelli wines offer excellent value; zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese and a sauvignon blanc are strengths.
1220 Canyon Road, Geyserville, 707-857-3531, pedroncelli.com
Rodney Strong Vineyards
If you’ve ever attended one of Rodney Strong’s summer concerts, know that the Concert Green Stage is where outdoor tastings are now being held. The stage, where the Beach Boys, Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis and others have performed, is covered by a permanent tent top, with open sides for air and heating lamps to keep people warm. Multiple tasting experiences are offered, including those from Rodney Strong Vineyards and sister brands Davis Bynum and Rowen Wine Co.
11455 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 707-431-1533, rodneystrong.com
Here is a rare opportunity to taste wines that cost $400 or more per bottle, score in the high 90s and even 100 points from prestigious critics and are sold almost exclusively to mailing-list members and collectors. That Vérité now welcomes guests to sample its three Bordeaux-style red blends (Le Désir, La Muse, La Joie), made by Pierre Seillan from Sonoma grapes, is rather remarkable. For $150 per person, the three current-release Vérité wines, plus an older library wine, are poured in a heated tent for a maximum six persons. Oenophiles, take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts.
4611 Thomas Road, Healdsburg, 433-9000, veritewines.com