Once upon a time in Sonoma, tasting rooms poured samples of their wines for free. Complimentary. Gratis.
That was a quarter-century or so ago, when “wine tasting” was not yet a thing here and wine consumption wasn’t common throughout the U.S. A running joke among winemakers was that perhaps they should pay people to try their wines. It had little to do with quality and almost everything to do Americans’ hesitancy to drink wine, let alone understand it.
Over the years, tastings went from free to $5, with a free glass with a logo; then to $10, with a finer piece of stemware to take home and perhaps a basket of French bread and a plate of cheese. Today, $20-$25 tastings, without food (nor freebie glass) are so prevalent they don’t raise eyebrows with guests. Napa Valley remains king when it comes to expensive tastings — rather, experiences — yet Sonoma wineries are catching up, with small bites, box lunches, full meals, private cabanas, vineyard hikes and tastings of library wines sending per-person fees into the $100-and-up stratosphere.
But what about the rest of us? What’s a budget-minded wine taster to do? Thank goodness, there still are a handful of Sonoma wineries whose basic tastings are complimentary, and many more that charge reasonable fees ($20 or less). Some even waive the cost if you buy a full bottle or two.
Here are 10 tasting venues with affordable fees or freebies. Keep in mind that pandemic protocols remain in place. These wineries explain their COVID-19 regulations on their websites, which include making appointments, masking and whether tastings are conducted indoors or out.
(The Sonoma County Vintners trade group has partnered with Visa Signature and Visa Infinite to offer buy-one, get-one tasting deals at approximately 50 wineries, if you use one of those credit cards. Visit sonomawine.com/visa-signature for the list of participating tasting rooms and other perks, among them $1 ground shipping through December.)
Alexander Valley Vineyards
This east-of-Healdsburg winery offers a tremendous tasting bang for the buck, or less. The Estate Tasting is free. Tours of the 25,000-square-foot underground cave are free. A sampling of Reserve-tier wines is just $20, and the cost is refunded if you buy one of those wines. Who does this? A winery that was among those that poured complimentary samples decades ago and sees value in continuing to do so.
“We had to charge and take reservations during the shutdown, and after we were allowed to open, we decided to go back to complimentary tasting for four wines and no-charge tours of our caves twice daily,” said Katie Wetzel Murphy, who, with her brother, Hank, operates the vineyards and winery founded by their parents in the 1960s. “It is just something we feel very strongly about as a family.”
Even the splurge experience here is a very fair $60 and includes a guided hike through the vineyards, wine and a boxed lunch (weather permitting).
8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-7209, avv.com
John and Teresa Balletto’s extensive vineyard holdings in the Russian River Valley afford winemaker Anthony Beckman many choices of grape varieties, vineyards and specific blocks within vineyards. Sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and rosé receive the same loving care as chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wine, all produced from Balletto vines.
Four of them are served at the Estate Tasting Experience, a fine value at $15. So is the $20 Reserve Tasting Experience of five wines, including block and vineyard designates. Across the board, the wines are excellent and fairly priced, from $20 to $48.
5700 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa, 707-568-2455, ballettovineyards.com
Cline Family Cellars
Fred and Nancy Cline started Cline Family Cellars in 1982, in Oakley in northeastern Contra Costa County. There, on the banks of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, grow ancient zinfandel, mourvedre and carignane grapevines in soils so sandy it’s hard to believe they can support green growth.
The Clines tapped these vines for their wines and 1989 moved their business to southern Sonoma Valley/Carneros, where they planted chardonnay, viognier, pinot noir and syrah and opened a tasting room in a 1850s farmhouse. Tastings are only outside for now, with five-wine flights priced at $15. Ponds and a sea of rose bushes add color to the tranquil grounds.
24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 800-546-2070, clinecellars.com
Bill Frick was cool years before the current wave of Sonoma and Mendocino winemakers discovered the pleasures of wines made from carignane, cinsaut, counoise, grenache, syrah, mourvedre and viognier grapes.
Bill and his wife, Judith Gannon, started Frick Winery in 1976 in a remote spot near Geyserville. They bought 7.7 acres of land in Dry Creek Valley and planted the previously mentioned Rhône grapes, not because the varieties were popular, but because they were what the Fricks wanted to drink and sell.
Forty-five years later, Bill Frick remains dedicated to what were once oddball wines for Sonoma, doing all the work himself and welcoming those willing to make the drive to his remote tasting room for complimentary tastings. Open on weekends only, Frick Winery is well worth making an appointment, to taste with the man behind the wines. Zero frills, lots of tasting thrills.
23072 Walling Road, Geyserville, 707-484-3950, frickwinestore.com
Hook & Ladder Winery
San Francisco firefighter Cecil De Loach and his wife, Christine, founded De Loach Vineyards in 1975, planting pinot noir on Olivet Road and farming old-vine zinfandel at their nearby Barbieri Ranch. They sold De Loach in 2003 and restarted with Hook & Ladder, also on Olivet Road, eventually installing grandson Jason De Loach as winemaker.
Pinot noir remains a staple at Hook & Ladder, though the family’s Los Amigos Ranch vineyard in Chalk Hill contributes Bordeaux red varieties to the winemaking mix. The Cadet tasting of five wines ($20) is a solid introduction to the winery: Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir, Olivet Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Pinot Noir, Estate Chalk Hill Merlot and Estate Chalk Hill Cabernet Franc. Or upgrade to the Captain tasting flight ($30) of five limited-production wines, among them Sparkling Rosé de Noirs, Aquarius Ranch Chardonnay, Severson Ranch Pinot Noir, Simeone Ranch Pinot Noir and Los Amigos Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.
2134 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-526-2255, hookandladderwinery.com
Korbel Champagne Cellars
Reservations are a must to taste at Korbel, which has produced “California Champagne” since 1882 and continues to use “Champagne” on its labels, to the great consternation of French Champagne makers.
The Marketplace tasting of three wines is generously complimentary, and $10 buys the four-wine Discovery tasting of sparkling, still and sweet wines. For those frothing for fizz, the All Bubbles tasting of five wines ($15) is a good deal. COVID-19 issues continue to hinder Korbel’s tours of its historic cellars and gorgeous gardens, though the Deli & Marketplace have reopened, for outdoor dining and takeout.
13250 River Road, Guerneville, 707-824-7000, korbel.com
Fifteen bucks buys a lot of deliciousness at this Petaluma tasting room, particularly for those who favor sweet and after-dinner wines. Sit outside at the old Foundry Wharf building on the Petaluma River and savor founder/winemaker Bill Reading’s port-style wines, those infused with natural chocolate flavoring, sherries and grappas.
DECO, an 18% alcohol, spirit-fortified dessert wine with a subtle yet distinctive dark chocolate flavor, is a great mate for chocolate-y sweets. ARIS is a port-like blend of zinfandel, grenache and alicante bouchet, boosted by the addition of a distilled spirit. Six sweeties are poured, plus tastes of Sonomic Red and Sonomic Gold Almost Vinegar, culinary condiments are that richer and less acidic than most vinegars.
613 Second St., Petaluma, 707-769-5203, portworks.com
For a tasting on the wild side, there is Spicy Vines, a downtown Healdsburg tasting room that pours wines with friendly names such as Sunnydaze Sauvignon Blanc, Dragon’s Kiss Syrah and Violet Rose Rosé.
Crystalyn Hoffman founded the brand in 2011. Three years later, she partnered, matrimonially and business-wise, with winemaker Doug Hackett. A five-wine flight is $15, the Reserve flight (with chardonnay, pinot noir and two cabernet sauvignons) $25. It’s more than a tasting room and also serves wine-based cocktails, beer, cider and cocktails, charcuterie boards and panini.
441 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-927-1065, spicyvines.com
The Meeker Vineyard
After closing its downtown Geyserville tasting room in April 2000, per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide order, the Meeker family moved tastings to their winery in Healdsburg, a few blocks from the Plaza and next door to Longboard Vineyards. A sit-down tasting area was carved out of the cellar, surrounded by in-use fermentation tanks and barrels, and an outdoor space gives visitors the sights and smells of just-harvested grapes beginning their journey to fermented wine.
Winemaker Lucas Meeker produces a wide range of wines — something for everyone — with rosés, grenache, merlot and “pet nat” sparklers among the stars. As many as eight wines are poured in a $20 tasting, with the fee waived when you buy one bottle.
5 Fitch St., Unit B, Healdsburg, 707-431-2148, meekerwine.com
Ty Caton Vineyards
With his vineyard in the Moon Mountain District of the Mayacamas mountains and his tasting room on the valley floor below, in Kenwood, Ty Caton’s Classic Tasting Experience, at $20, is a cool way to sample hillside-grown red wines for a reasonable price.
Caton uses grapes from his family’s 40-acre Caton Vineyard for all his wines and produces a whopping nine vineyard-designated cabernet sauvignons in some vintages. Merlot, petite sirah and syrah might also appear in the tasting, as well as Tytanium, a blend of six red grapes grown in the vineyard. The Caton Cabernet Collection Experience is $30, focused on block-specific cabernet sauvignons.
8910 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-938-3224, tycaton.com