Although some coronavirus-spurred restrictions are being relaxed, Sonoma County’s winery tasting rooms remain closed, hospitality events and festivals are on hold and restaurant dining is limited to takeout and delivery. Wine lovers yearn for the old days — as in two months ago — when the bottles we wanted were easy and quick to get (well, maybe not Kosta Browne Pinot Noir or Peter Michael Les Pavots Bordeaux-style red blend), in myriad ways.
We don’t call this Wine Country for nothing.
In lieu of physically selling wine in their tasting rooms, producers have become adept at offering virtual wine tastings, porch deliveries and curbside pickups. Eateries sell bottles from their cellars along with take-home meals. Yet the social aspect has largely been missing: the conviviality of hanging with friends and making new ones over glasses of wine, not only at dinner tables, but at picnics at the coast, in wine bars, at our downtown celebrations with music and food trucks and at events where hundreds, if not thousands, of wines are available to taste for the cost of a ticket.
With spring-fever restlessness obvious, here are eight things fans of Sonoma County wines can’t wait to have again.
Tasting rooms at wineries
There is something magical about driving Sonoma’s country roads on a sunny spring day, surrounded by lush, leafy vineyards in the process of setting fruit for the year’s harvest. Downtown tasting rooms serve a noble purpose, but for me, there’s nothing like pulling into a winery driveway off a back road, inhaling the heady aromas of native fermentations that have been going since October and being greeted by the winery dog or human that sets the tone for an experience that’s as much about the people and place as it is about the wines. From a cordial greeting to a friendly farewell, visiting Sonoma County wineries is just plain cool.
It’s such a Sonoma thing, to enjoy dreamy, purple and pink sunsets along with a glass of wine and a knosh in hand. It’s a perfect end to what might have been a not-so-perfect day at work or with the kids. Paradise Ridge Winery in northern Santa Rosa does it right with its Wines & Sunsets Wednesdays, typically running May through October, at which Dan Barwick’s wines are poured alongside dishes prepared by a rotating group of gourmet food trucks (among them Sondra Bernstein’s Fig Rig, TIPS Tri Tip Trolley and Zazu Black Piglet), accompanied by live music. The 2020 calendar for Wines & Sunsets has been disrupted, of course, but proprietor Sonia Byck-Barwick hopes part of the schedule can be revived.
Paradise Ridge, as most locals know, was destroyed by the 2017 Tubbs fire. The Byck family rebuilt, then reopened the sculpture-studded estate last December, only to close again with shelter-in-place orders. “We were just getting back into the swing of things when the (order) was put in place, so naturally, it is not easy to be closed again,” Byck-Barwick said, noting the winery continues to sell its wines online for shipping or delivery.
“A bright spot is that we kept our gates open so neighbors can continue to visit Marijke’s Grove, our outdoor sculpture garden, while social distancing, of course. We feel it is a lovely reprieve from the stress many people are feeling.”
Weekly community concerts
We do it in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Windsor and elsewhere: gather one night a week, from May through Labor Day, to listen to live music, order bites from food trucks, shop from local farmers and, of course, drink wine. Community commingling is a salve for the soul, particularly in a time like this, and it’s best shared with great wine and food. Tuesdays in the Plaza (Healdsburg), Summer Nights on the Green Concerts (Windsor), Sonoma Tuesday Night Market (Sonoma), Cloverdale Friday Night Live and Santa Rosa Wednesday Night Market are among the seasonal events on hold for now, yet all hope to resume when it’s safe to be out and about in crowds. Did I mention there’s always wine?
Shopping at, not from, wine shops
Local retail wine stores without food-service licenses were forced to close in March. Many offered online purchasing and shipping, but for people like me, that wasn’t a substitute for perusing aisles and reading the back labels on bottles and “shelf talker” notes on the wines from the producer, retailer or wine critic. Grocery stores including Oliver’s Market, Safeway and Raley’s continue to offer a nice range of wines. Shops with food including Willibees Wines & Spirits and BevMo do the same. Yet I’ve missed the in-person shopping experience, from mom and pop shops to Santa Rosa’s warehouse-sized Bottle Barn. Reopening will do us all good.
Taste of Sonoma
This day-long gorge-athon of wine and food, held in early September each year, draws locals and visitors from around the country for its embarrassing richness of gustatory pleasures. Wineries, restaurants and caterers converge for “Taste,” and you might not be hungry or thirsty for a couple days after. The annual event, conducted by Sonoma County Vintners and initially scheduled this year for Sept. 5 at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens in Santa Rosa, was canceled because of prohibitions on large events amid the coronavirus pandemic. The event is a treasure, a showcase for Sonoma’s most talented winemakers and chefs. Stay tuned for the 2021 date of this marvel of an event. 855-939-7666, tasteofsonoma.com
Passport to Dry Creek Valley
At this grandaddy-of-them-all wine event that began in 1990, each “passport” purchased gives the holder access to what has grown to 40-plus wineries pouring their finest, accompanied by gourmet food and live entertainment over two days in April. There was a time when postmarks on mailed ticket requests — and later, FedEx overnight arrivals — determined who received a passport and who did not. Passport 2020 was canceled, so mark your calendar for April 24-25 for the 2021 event. Other Sonoma County AVA marketing groups have created similar events, among them the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers’ Signature Sonoma event, postponed until May 13-16, 2021. drycreekvalley.org/events/passport-dry-creek-valley, sonomavalleywine.com/signature-sonoma-valley
Wine Road Barrel Tasting
This two-weekend, February-March event is a marvel, drawing crowds since 1978 to taste and purchase Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valley wines that aren’t yet ready to drink. Out of the barrel, many of these mostly red wines are raw, tannic and mouth-puckering. By the time they are bottled, a year or two later, they’ve rounded out, become complete and are fine values for those smart enough to buy them, at discounted prices, when the wines are still in barrel. The second weekend of this event was canceled this year; those booked for the second weekend look forward to the 2021 event, set for March 5-7. wineroad.com
Enjoying wine in restaurants
Diners have benefited from the ability to order takeout from their favorite restaurants, though these businesses have struggled mightily to stay in the black and keep their staffs employed during the shutdowns. Wine, beer and liquor sales traditionally offset skyrocketing food costs in the restaurant industry, and without table service, eateries have experienced a double-whammy financial blow because they can’t hand-sell wine. I’ve missed the services of sommeliers and servers who point me to interesting wines, those that complement the dishes I’ve ordered, and tell a short story about a producer that convinces me to try the wine. Also missed: wine by the glass. Restaurants have been allowed to sell full, sealed bottles of wine as part of their takeout/delivery efforts. But what if I want just one glass and don’t want to invest in a bottle? Reopening of restaurants will solve that problem.