The Insider Secret to the Best Parties in All of Wine Country

The wine flows freely, the food is delicious, and the summery vibes are never-ending at local release parties, where club members pick up the newest wines.

Sometimes you can’t help but feel sorry for wine club members who live thousands of miles away, in Texas or New York or Florida. Sure, shipments of wine magically appear on their doorstep several times a year. But just think of all the festivities they miss out on.

Welcome to the Age of the Never-Ending Pickup Party—a seasonal, late-spring cause for celebration, a way of saying thanks to loyal believers and imbibers, and one of the reasons locals love being locals, and everyone else gets a little jealous.

“We feel like terroir is people, too,” says Andy Peay, who’s been throwing parties at Peay’s winemaking space in Cloverdale for nearly two decades. “You know—who you are, what you eat, what you drink, where you’re from, what music you listen to, what movies you like. That informs all your decisions, just like what you grow, how you grow it, when you pick it and how you make it. And so here we are in Sonoma County, and these are the people we want to throw a party for.”

Call them release parties or open houses – they’ve been around long enough to make you wonder, was there ever a time when people used to drive to a winery, open their trunk, load up on new wines, and turn around and go home? (Sadly, the answer is yes.)

Ryme Cellars Forestville
Wine is displayed and poured at a recent club gathering at Ryme Cellars in Forestville. (Megan Glaab/Ryme Cellars)

But in recent years, the wine club pickup party has become a moveable feast and house party all rolled into one. “Rather than making it formal, it’s really about a celebratory hang,” says Megan Glaab, who runs Ryme Cellars in Forestville with her husband Ryan, who often mans the grill at parties. “When we started looking at what we wanted to do for our pickup parties, it was kind of like, ‘What do we like to do at home?’ We gather with people, have fun, eat, and enjoy some wine. Our customers have become our friends.”

Along with music, seasonal food pairings are a huge part of the equation. “We always do oysters in April because they’re so delicious coming out of the cold months of winter, and they pair well with high-acid whites,” says Pax Mahle, owner and winemaker at Pax Wines in Sebastopol.

Likewise, earlier this spring Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor brought in a crew of Hog Island oyster shuckers to pair bivalves with wild mushroom risotto. But pairings are always personal taste. “For our open houses, it’s like unlimited wine,” says Mahle. “You just come in and drink anything with anything you want. If you want to tap the Syrah with the oysters, I’m down with that. That’s why we do a harissa mignonette. There’s no wrong answer.”

Bricoleur Vineyards Windsor
Bricoleur winemaker Cary Gott at a March 2024 pickup. (Bricoleur Vineyards)

Come for the wine, stay for the party. That’s the mantra at Peay, where Uneda Eat chef Rob Hunter wheels in a 20-foot flatbed truck loaded with a restaurant-sized pizza oven, firing up 150-200 pies for the party. The nomadic Point Arena chef leans heavy on homemade fennel sausage, broccolini and mushrooms he forages in the woods of Mendocino. It all goes perfectly with Peay Pinots and Syrahs, which are less about big, fruity, jammy notes, and more about good acids, and earthy, forest-floor flavors.

Peay always lays out a spread of Soyoung Scanlan’s Andante Dairy cheese, made in Petaluma. “It’s just for tasting,” he says. “We put out as much as they can possibly eat. You can’t get Andante Dairy cheeses very easily. We put out tons of it, and we watch people just mow through it. Like, I can basically eat this stuff until my face hurts.”

But what works at some wineries, doesn’t always work at others. “If you lay out a cheese wheel and just let people attack it, within an hour it can look pretty ugly,” says Duncan Meyers, owner-winemaker at Arnot-Roberts in Healdsburg. In the past, they’ve also gone the taco or pizza truck route. “But it gets messy,” Meyers says. So they turned to The Spinster Sisters owner Liza Hinman for small seasonal bites, usually one veggie and one with meat. “There’s no utensils or waste, you grab a tart or a mini quiche, pop it in your mouth and keep tasting.”

The key to pairing with Arnot-Roberts wines, he says, is to find something earthy and savory, like a crostini with chanterelles or morels. Or, “it’s hard to beat charcuterie or pâté—savory, salty, and not overly spicy.”

This time of year, it seems there’s a rolling pickup party circuit on almost any given weekend. Some club members try to juggle several in a day. “I always stay in touch with Scott Schultz at Jolie-Laide and Pax Mahle over at Pax winery, because we have similar customers, and we often have releases at the same time,” says Meyers. “Literally, Pax just emailed me earlier to say, ‘Hey, I saw you’re having a party on the 13th. So are we, but let’s work it so we don’t conflict on hours.’”

And for those East Coast wine club members still awaiting their latest shipments, there is hope. “We do get responses from our people in New York, saying ‘Oh man, I wish I lived in Sonoma County. I’d love to be there.’ Well, make a trip out,” says Meyers. “This is the perfect excuse.”

Andy Peay always smiles when he sees a familiar wine club member who drives down from Canada every year to make the pickup party rounds, loading up his trunk for the long drive home. At Ryme, Glaab has a few members who just can’t stand missing out. “We actually have people who fly out for pickup parties, just to be a part of it. You would be surprised.”

An East Coaster by birth, Mahle is hardly shocked. As he puts it, “Nothing attracts a good time like a good time.”