There are many ways to taste wine and learn about winemaking in Sonoma County. Hundreds of local wineries invite visitors to their tasting rooms and offer a variety of experiences, from wine and food pairings to guided vineyard hikes. In recent years, wineries have become more creative: Wine-related excursions now include seaplane flights over the Mayacamas Mountains, guided horseback rides and tours of custom crush facilities.
A new experience at Medlock Ames in Healdsburg promises to offer something different with a self-guided audio tour that allows guests to stroll through the winery’s Bell Mountain Ranch estate while listening to a soundscape recorded at the property. Think museum audio guide, but outdoors and with wine at the end of the tour.
Medlock Ames’ new Immersive Sound Experience ($75 per person) is GPS-cued (it plays a particular part of the recording at a particular location, through headphones provided by the winery) and includes narration by co-founder Ames Morison, winemaker Abby Watt and a handful of winery staff, who share stories about the winery and its approach to organic, sustainable farming and land preservation. It also stars a supporting cast that includes resident wildlife, like acorn woodpeckers and barn owls.
“I didn’t do it for 20 years because I thought it just was too impossible,” said Morison about the sound experience. “It took a lot of iterations to make it work … It was pretty hard, but worth it,” he added.
Local composer and sound artist Hugh Livingston helped turn Morison’s dream into reality. Livingston has created a variety of sound experiences in Sonoma County, including one in the Evert B. & Norma Person Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. He spent months recording the soundscape of the 338-acre Bell Mountain Ranch, of which less than 50 acres are planted to vines.
“I had a lot of fun with a hydrophone (underwater microphone technology) inside the wine barrels during fermentation,” said Livingston. [It’s] a very active sound world, seemingly alien.”
Listeners are encouraged to walk the one-mile audio tour at their own pace, ultimately making their way to more than a dozen stops or points of interest. The recording highlights the biodiversity of the ranch property, from the olive groves and vegetable garden to the native oak woodlands. Observant visitors can still see burn scars from the 2019 Kincade fire, which burned through wooded areas on the property and destroyed 20 percent of its vineyards. “The fire was a pivotal moment for us,” says Morison on the recording.
Narration and ambient sounds are expertly paired throughout the recording. As winemaker Abby Watt details the hard work that goes into harvesting grapes — more than 40 sections of grapes are picked separately to ensure they are all perfectly ripe — the listener can hear a melodic mashup of background sounds: Rolling tractors and busy employees work to the beat of rhythmic music during a nighttime harvest session. (Cool nighttime temperatures preserve the taste of the fruit, maximize energy efficiency and allow for more comfortable working conditions.)
“A highlight was capturing the energy of the harvest, which is human and machine,” said Livingston. “To me this was the most important record to document as the majority of our listeners will never have that experience.”
The Immersive Sound Experience at Medlock Ames also brings visitors to one of the vineyard’s many owl boxes. They learn that a barn owl is likely slumbering inside the box after a busy night of hunting gophers. (You might attempt jumping up to get a peek of the bird through the small hole in the box. We tried, and failed.) Morison then recounts the painstaking effort that went into building and installing the boxes and listeners can imagine the exuberant feeling after the team discovered, just a few months later, that all boxes were occupied by owls.
The audio tour details most aspects of the Healdsburg winery estate and its winemaking activities but doesn’t include information about the wine — this is saved for the post-tour, seated tasting of current-release wines paired with local, organic cheeses.
As the winery kicks off its Immersive Sound Experience, a staff member will tag along on tours to ensure there are no technical glitches but the idea is that visitors will eventually be strolling solo throughout the property while taking in its sights and sounds.
Reservations are required for the Immersive Sound Experience ($75 per person). Medlock Ames Bell Mountain Ranch, 13414 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, medlockames.com