Coronavirus restrictions, wildfires and uncertain business conditions in the last two years gave pause to many Sonoma County wineries over how to operate their tasting rooms and still stay in the black.
Yet remarkably few local tasting venues have closed during the pandemic. In fact, many are now thriving after adjusting from pouring for to the masses to offering more customized visits for fewer guests willing to pay more for the extra attention.
Even more remarkable, some confident winemakers opened new tasting rooms in the second half of 2021, pandemic be damned. They recognized that the thirst for wine tasting remains unquenchable, no matter the conditions, and that direct interaction with customers is the best route to immediate sales and customer loyalty.
Here are 2021’s most exciting tasting room debuts, all of them highly recommended for ringing in 2022. There’s a heavy focus here on Healdsburg, which continues its run as a travel and tourist darling, and where some projects long-delayed by politics, remodeling, wildfires and COVID-19 have finally come to fruition.
Abbot’s Passage Winery & Mercantile
Katie Bundschu established Abbot’s Passage in 2021 at the former site of Valley of the Moon Winery in Glen Ellen (where grapevines were planted in 1863 and the stone cellar built in 1887). It’s her personal branch on her family’s Gundlach Bundschu winemaking tree. Many wine tastings take place at tables in the Olive Grove, weather permitting.
There are also food-and-wine experiences among old zinfandel vines, with crackers, cheeses, charcuterie, dried fruits and pickled vegetables — many of them housemade. The standouts are Rhone-style, field-blend reds; the brisk Sunblink, a mix of roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc; and The Traverse, a Bordeaux-style red blend. Visitors can try out the shuffleboard courts at this kid- and dog-friendly winery, and the indoor Mercantile sells glassware, jewelry, hats, totes and other goods chosen by Bundschu, who embraces women-owned businesses and locally sourced crafts.
777 Madrone Road, Glen Ellen, 707-939-3017, abbotspassage.com
This six-winery collective with tasting rooms, a large piazza, event spaces, rooftop terrace, bocce courts, picnic tables and a gourmet marketplace opened in late summer 2021 on the western outskirts of Healdsburg. It’s among the most ambitious and anticipated wine-centric venues to open in Sonoma County since the pandemic began and already has become a spend-the-day spot for families with kids and canines and for wine lovers seeking hard-to-find wines.
Aldina Vineyards owners Al and Dina Lopez and their children, Monica and Francisco Lopez, took three years to build the Mediterranean-style facility, central piazza and the family-friendly Frank’s Place area outside the southern wall, with bocce, picnic tables, piped-in music and opportunities for noshing and wine tasting.
Bacchus Landing’s winery tenants, each with their own tasting bar and outdoor patios, are Aldina Vineyards, AldenAlli, 13th & Third Wines, Montagne Russe, DOT Wine and Smith Story Wine Cellars. They’re open Thursday through Monday for walk-ins, though appointments are recommended, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays by appointment. Most offer pairings, with bites from the Bacchus Landing kitchen and marketplace. Contact each winery, via phone or website, for details and reservations.
The event schedule for 2022 includes Sunday Fundays starting in March, with food trucks and other activities; live music on the piazza on the first Saturday of each month, beginning April 2; a spring bazaar (May 7); Independence Day weekend celebration with live music and artisanal food experiences; and a pop-up art gallery (Aug. 6).
A bonus: There is plentiful parking in the Bacchus Landing lot, which is outfitted with several electric-auto charging stations.
14210 Bacchus Landing Way, Healdsburg, bacchuslanding.com
AldenAlli, 707-494-2045, aldenalli.com (chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel)
Aldina Vineyards, 707-799-1821, aldinavineyards.com (chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon)
DOT Wine, 707-385-9855, dotwinery.com (chardonnay, pinot noir, sparkling)
Montagne Russe, 855-467-8773, russewines.com (chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, cabernet sauvignon)
Smith Story Wine Cellars, 707-494-5575, smithstorywinecellars.com (pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, sparkling)
13th & Third Wines, 917-940-6653, 13thandthirdwines.com (grenache blanc, roussanne, viognier, grenache, syrah, mourvedre)
Brooks Note Winery
Many terrific wines are produced from grapes grown in the Petaluma Gap AVA (American Viticultural Area), though the number of winery tasting rooms in the city of Petaluma could be counted on one hand. In August 2021, Garry Brooks added another finger when he opened the Brooks Notes Winery tasting room downtown.
Brooks and his wife, Joanne Note, planted a small vineyard in Sonoma in 2002 while they worked tech jobs. In 2004, Brooks took a leap of faith and left technology to make wine. Starting at Ravenswood, he went on to production work at Kosta Browne and Dutton Goldfield and also earned an enology and viticulture degree at UC Davis. Brooks and Note started their label with the 2011 harvest. Current releases include pinot blanc, pinot noir, a grenache/syrah/mourvedre blend and cabernet sauvignon, all made in tiny quantities. The starter flight is $25; a tasting of five pinot noirs, with a cheese plate, is $40; six single-vineyard wines, paired with cheese and charcuterie, is $75.
426 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, 707-981-8470, brooksnotewinery.com
Jeff Cohn Cellars
Jeff Cohn worked for years as director of winemaking at zinfandel superstar Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda. On the side, he created JC Cellars in 1996. In a long story made short, Kent Rosenblum sold his winery and brand to the Diageo corporation, and Cohn pushed all his chips into JC Cellars, later renamed Jeff Cohn Cellars.
After building their brand, Cohn and his wife and business partner, Alexandra, eventually established a tasting room in downtown Sonoma. In June 2021, they relocated to Healdsburg to be closer to the vineyards from which they buy grapes and to Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor, where Jeff produces the wines. He calls the wines “unapologetic” — boldly-flavored zinfandels, syrahs, grenaches, mourvedres and white Rhone-varietal viogniers, roussannes, marsannes and grenache blancs that remain wonderfully balanced for their robust nature. Tastings of five wines are $35; the Vault Private Tasting ($60) includes eight reserve-level wines, served in a private tasting room.
34 North St., Healdsburg, 707-938-8343, jeffcohncellars.com
Marine Layer Wines
Baron Ziegler and winemaker Rob Fischer were among the founders of Banshee Wines in downtown Healdsburg in 2012 — a tasting room that attracted the younger wine drinkers so many older wineries covet. The partners sold a majority share of the business to Foley Family Wines in 2018 and Ziegler and Fischer moved on to create Marine Layer Wines, producing truly exceptional chardonnays and pinot noirs from cool-climate Sonoma Coast vineyards.
After leaving Banshee, Ziegler leased the former Flight Deck Tasting Lounge (across Center Street from Banshee) for Marine Layer and initiated a major remodeling of the space, now with an inviting mix of elegant, crisp, casual decor. Seating is on couches, before an enclosed glass fireplace and at a long bar. After building delays related to the pandemic, Ziegler opened the 3,200-square-foot space in September 2021, offering five-wine flights for $35 and five wines with a mezze plate from soon-to-open Little Saint that includes dips, spreads, housemade crackers and crudités, for $50.
Knights Bridge Winery
For several years, Knights Bridge Winery proprietor Jim Bailey and his partners poured their estate-grown cabernet sauvignons, sauvignon blancs and chardonnays at a tasting room in the former Calistoga National Bank building in downtown Calistoga. Now, Bailey and his wife, Kelley, have brought tastings to their Knights Valley estate with the opening of a wine production facility and tasting salon in eastern Sonoma County.
The estate winery processed its first fruit in 2021, though grapes have been planted there for more than 160 years. The salon, which debuted in December, offers views of Mt. St. Helena and vineyards to the east, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. Entering through the state-of-the-art production facility, guests follow the same route that grapes do, past five custom tulip-shaped concrete tanks, through the barrel cave and into an art-filled, natural-light well for private seated tastings of the wines, plus local cheeses and charcuterie. The wines, made by Doug Danielak since 2006, are of an elegant, restrained — dare I say classic French — style, with fruit character balanced by savory notes and sturdy tannins for aging.
Call the salon at 707-341-3391 or email email@example.com for more information, appointments and tasting fees.
17134 Spencer Lane, Calistoga, knightsbridgewinery.com
La Prenda Wines
Ned Hill, proprietor of La Prenda Vineyard Management, farms multiple sites within Sonoma Valley. A few years ago, he began producing wines from his clients’ grapes and selling them under the Sonoma Collection and La Prenda labels. In October 2021, Hill and his wife, Erika, opened a tasting room in downtown Sonoma to showcase the wines made from the grapes they farm. Their portfolio is broad, including sparklers, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, malbec and Bordeaux-style red blends.
Tastings are $20 for the Sonoma Valley Tasting, $25 for the Signature Tasting and $35 for the Reserve and Library Tasting. Most of the wines, produced by former Schug Vineyards winemaker Mike Cox, are nicely priced and textbook examples of what Sonoma (and some Napa) grapes can produce. It’s a great place to taste a broad range of wines at a fair price.
535 First St. W., Sonoma, 707-938-7228, laprendawine.com