Who opens a wine tasting venue during COVID-19 closures and restrictions?
Next weekend, Johan Eide and Kerry Thedorf will, and their venue, Region, should arrive with some excitement. It will offer wines from two dozen high-end, low-production wineries, most located in Sonoma, for tasting and purchase, with guests serving themselves from high-tech dispensing machines. Food from nearby restaurants, special events, music, winemaker dinners … it may all be found at their space, Region, at the busy Barlow center in Sebastopol.
The original launch plan was for March or April, but as spring drew closer, Eide and Thedorf decided to push the opening into May. That decision proved wise, as March brought the explosion of coronavirus cases, prompting shutdowns of tasting rooms and shelter-in-place orders.
“We decided on May to have everything in place and offer the complete experience,” Thedorf said. “If we’d opened in March, it would have crushed us.”
Yet May became problematic, too, as the pandemic continued and tasting rooms, restaurants, bars and retail stores didn’t know when they could reopen or under what conditions. Now July 25 is the official opening date for Region. The delay allowed the founders to not only tweak the details but also retool for outdoor-only seating, control the number of customers using the self-dispensing machines (four to six, each 6 feet apart) and put in place sanitation and other health safety measures.
“We’ve shifted where everyone sits; we took out a middle wall and installed four doors that we can open and close to create separate spaces,” Thedorf said. “And we’re working with our neighbor, Golden State Cider, to expand the patio into its parking lot.”
The Region concept makes great sense for consumers and wineries alike. Purchasing a 2.5- or 5-ounce glass of hard-to-get wine lets guests taste before they buy; the wines in the dispensers are available for purchase by the bottle. Each member winery is assigned two weeks a year during which it can pour its wines in person and host winemaker dinners and club events when coronavirus restrictions are lifted. Current co-op wineries include Flambeaux, Hafner, Laurel Glen, Thirty Seven, Three Sticks and Trombetta; Front Porch winemaker Sebastien Pochon has the pouring honors on July 25.
“Region is very important for a small brand like ours,” said Rickey Trombetta Stancliff, who with husband Roger Stancliff owns Trombetta Family Wines in Forestville. Their daughter, Erika Stancliff, is the winemaker for this chardonnay and pinot noir producer. “We are too small (approximately 1,200 cases a year) to have our own tasting room. We don’t make enough wine for that to be profitable. Region allows us to showcase our wines with the added benefit that people can try them … without feeling any pressure to purchase. If they would like to take home a bottle or two, they have that ability as well.”
Despite making wine for three decades in Sonoma County for large companies and his own Goldschmidt Vineyards brand, Nick Goldschmidt and his wife, Yolyn Wilson, have never had their own tasting room. Although their timing wasn’t ideal, they have one now, in the collective tasting venue The Pour House, northwest of Healdsburg. Formerly known as Family Wineries of Dry Creek, this casual spot surrounded by grapevines is home to Lago di Merlo and Optima Winery and, since mid-June, Goldschmidt Vineyards.
“A tasting room is not a market we have developed in the past, as we have never found the right location until now,” Goldschmidt said, shrugging off the pandemic challenges. “I didn’t want to be in town, per se. I wanted to be out in the country, and Dry Creek Valley, where we live, is a special place. We are farmers after all, and so being out in the valley is important to me.”
He is mostly known as a cabernet sauvignon maker, so Goldschmidt wants to shine a light on other varietals and small-lot wines not available in stores.
“Cabernet will always be our focus, from Oakville (in Napa Valley) and Alexander Valley, and we have a great following for merlot and chardonnay,” he explained. “Now we can show real special lots from even smaller growers: Fog’s Edge from Randy Peters, Singing Tree Reserve from Dutton (Ranch), Lone Tree Alexander Valley, petite sirah and zinfandel from Railyard, under the Gracepoint label and many other hard-to-find wines.”
Region and Goldschmidt Vineyards aren’t alone in creating tasting spaces in trying times. Aperature Cellars in Healdsburg, Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor and Chenoweth Wines in Sebastopol join them in the cause.
Jesse Katz has done a lot of winemaking in his short 36 years, for such world-renowned wineries as Petrus in Bordeaux, Screaming Eagle in Napa Valley, Viña Cobos in Argentina and Lancaster Estate and its sister label, Roth, in Sonoma. He went on to found his own labels, Devil Proof for malbec and Aperture Cellars for Bordeaux-variety wines.
Investment assistance from Houston Astros owner Jim Crane helped Katz build an avant-garde production facility south of Healdsburg for the two brands, with an adjacent visitor center slated to open in spring of this year. Coronavirus delayed the debut until July 9, when the doors opened to appointment-only outdoor visits.
The 4,000-square-foot space incorporates natural light, inspired by the aperture of a camera, used so successfully by Katz’s professional photographer father, Andy. The sauvignon blanc and cabernet-based wines are high end and of remarkable quality. Experiences ($75-$125) are low-key, intimate and include food pairings. Indoor tastings will be available when restrictions are lifted.
12291 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 707-200-7891, aperture-cellars.com.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Mark and Elizabeth Hanson targeted the grand opening of their Windsor tasting room, guest houses, events barn and pavilion for May 2. They’d hired former Chalkboard and Brass Rabbit chef Shane McAnelly as estate chef and planted flower and produce gardens from which he could pluck items for his dishes.
Shelter-in-place orders stalled the Hansons’ opening until May 23 and all visitor activities had to be conducted outside, with physical distancing. The 39-acre estate (21 acres of chardonnay and pinot noir vines), with its own pond and views of the Russian River, proved just right for the times. Today, tastings continue by appointment, and wine and food packages range from $45 to $90 per person. A wide range of varietals are offered.
7394 Starr Road, Windsor, 707-857-5700, bricoleurvineyards.com
Like many vineyard owners, Amy and Charlie Chenoweth branched out to making their own wines — mostly chardonnay and pinot noir — from their ranch in the Sebastopol hills. In July, they introduced a range of outdoor tastings and tours for small groups and with physical distancing for safety. There is no tasting room but rather a tasting grove with picnic tables shaded by towering redwoods. Tastings range from $25 to $125 per person and include cheese pairings from Valley Ford Cheese Co. It’s truly a family affair, with winemaker Amy, grapegrower Charlie, their sons CJ and Jakob and Kyra Thomson, CJ’s girlfriend and Chenoweth assistant winemaker, all involved in welcoming guests.
5550 Harrison Grade Road, Sebastopol, 707-829-3367, chenowethwines.com
Goldschmidt Vineyards at The Pour House
The Pour House, formerly known as Family Winemakers of Dry Creek Valley, is a collective of small-volume wine producers; Goldschmidt Vineyards joined the fold in mid-June. The tasting room has been redecorated and the large patio area allows for easy physical distancing.
Nick Goldschmidt makes a dizzying number of wines from throughout the world — New Zealand, Chile and Argentina joining California — yet his focus for The Pour House is on chardonnays, zinfandels, merlots and cabernet sauvignons from Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. Open daily, The Pour House also serves and sells the wines of Lago di Merlo and Optima Winery. The basic tasting is $10, refunded with a bottle purchase; add a charcuterie plate for $12.
Purchase a tasting card ($2.99) which links to your credit account, insert it in a high-tech wine dispensing station and push-button pour your own sample or glass of wine from any of 24 producers, most of them located in the “region” of Sonoma. During COVID-19 restrictions, take that glass to the patio where you will be seated and distanced from others to enjoy your wine and perhaps order a meal or snack from nearby Acre Pizza, The Farmer’s Wife, Fern Bar or Sushi Kosho to be delivered to your table.
This new venue in The Barlow in Sebastopol officially opens July 25 and features two dozen small producers (most under 10,000 annual cases) that don’t have the means for their own tasting rooms, yet have the goods — great wines — available for sampling and purchase.
The Barlow, 180 Morris St., Suite 170, Sebastopol, 707-329-6724, drinktheregion.com