Experiencing the wine grape harvest is a must-do for visitors to Sonoma County and an annual ritual for locals.
During harvest, intoxicating aromas of fermenting grapes welcome winery visitors; even pomace — the skins, seeds and stems leftover from fermentation — has its own inviting scent. Workers bustle up and down vineyard rows, cutting clusters from vines with jaw-dropping speed, reminding us that winemaking, at its heart, is agriculture and hard work. Trucks hauling bins of just-picked grapes delay impatient drivers along back roads. But they also suggest that the production of great wine takes time — so slow down, enjoy the scenery and the wafting fragrance of fermenting fruit.
The 2020 grape harvest, as any wine-loving local knows, is strikingly different than most others before it, altered by pandemic protocols, a spell of record-setting heat and wildfire smoke. No community grape stomps are on the calendar. Winery harvest celebrations are postponed until next year. Tour companies’ itineraries for crush-time visits are on hold. Even the venerable Sonoma County Harvest Fair won’t be held this year, cursed by the coronavirus.
But while virtual tastings and Zoom wine chats continue, there are still opportunities to visit wineries in person and get a sense of harvest. Conditions can change in a heartbeat, but for now, these local wineries offer a taste of the harvest season, with COVID-19 safety measures in place. In all cases, appointments are required, as are face masks, to be worn before and after sit-down tastings.
Benziger Family Winery
This iconic winery in Glen Ellen continues to excel at educating guests on how grapes are grown biodynamically and organically on its Sonoma Mountain estate. A seated tasting ($30 per person) is on the menu, with five wines poured on the patio for groups of up to six, Thursday through Monday. The best way to view the estate at harvest time and experience its green-growing efforts, is the Tribute Estate Tour ($60 per person). It’s a behind-the-scenes look at how the vineyards are farmed using eco-responsible practices, with estate wines served along the way. Also available Thursday through Monday, for small groups only.
883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, 888-490-2739, benziger.com
Kamen Estate Wines
Screenwriter Robert Kamen (“The Karate Kid,” “Transporter”) has a tasting room in downtown Sonoma; his winery is on the outskirts of town. For a harvest-time vibe while tasting his ripe, rich, top-tier sauvignon blancs, Bordeaux-style reds and syrahs, take a drive to his Moon Mountain District vineyard. There, at an altitude of approximately 1,200 feet and with sweeping views of Sonoma Valley and San Francisco Bay, guests sample four wines, served with artisan cheeses, after a tour of the certified organic vineyard. It’s a calming, quiet site, though the hubbub of harvest in the valley below can be heard and seen. The address and directions are provided at the time reservations are made. $80 per person.
The Sebastopol winery has a long history of pairing its chardonnays, pinot noirs and rosés with lunches prepared by its estate chefs, currently David Frakes. The open-air tasting room and patio are surrounded by an amphitheater of grapevines, including Lynmar’s signature Quail Hill Vineyard, as well as a bountiful culinary garden. With fall afoot, Frakes taps the garden for ingredients for the Lynmar on Your Own Lunch Pairing, a premade meal for two that includes a half bottle each of chardonnay and pinot noir ($225 for two people). It’s offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, with a maximum group size of six. Depending on the day of a visit, guests might see grapes being harvested and fruit from other vineyards being delivered, smell the fermentations and see grape leaves, once a vibrant green, turning to autumnal orange and brown.
3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol, 707-829-3374, x102, lynmarestate.com
Harvest time isn’t limited to grapes. At McEvoy Ranch in southern Petaluma, fruit picked for vino is grown alongside olive trees used to make McEvoy’s world-class olive oils. This sprawling ranch blends a Tuscan ambiance from the olive oil side with a Sonoma winegrowing flair, best seen from a public walkabout tour ($55) through vineyards and orchards and commencing with a tasting of olive oils. The Patio Lunch ($35-$45) includes a choice of one of three lavosh flatbread wraps and a sampler flight of wines, which might include rosé, pinot noir, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Add to the lunch a tasting of McEvoy’s several estate-grown olive oils ($25), extra virgin and made from certified organically grown trees, and a loaf of bread for dunking. Visitors might catch a glimpse of grape harvest activity; the olive harvest typically begins in November.
5935 Red Hill Road, Petaluma, 866-617-6779, mcevoyranch.com
View harvest at home
Passalacqua Winery: This Dry Creek Valley winery’s “crush” video, starring winemaker Jessica Boone, is a quick, fun and colorful look at the not-so-glamorous side of harvest season. Cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning of presses, tanks, barrels and hoses is an important part of fine wine production, and this video is a must-see for anyone considering becoming a cellar rat. Passalacqua also offers onsite and virtual tasting experiences, though it’s a small producer and guests might not glimpse harvest activity during a visit, depending on timing. Zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon are its strengths. passalacquawinery.com/videos. 3805 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-5550, passalacquawinery.com
Sojourn Cellars: The tasting room is a block from the Sonoma Plaza, in a quaint cottage, yet nowhere near the vineyards and winery. Visit now to taste the outstanding chardonnays, pinot noirs and cabernet sauvignons made by Erich Bradley and Craig Haserot. But before you go, view this 2019 video that shows the magical and soulful side of a typical Sojourn harvest. bit.ly/3j17gZY. 141 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 707-938-7212, soujourncellars.com