Northern California Wine Country has many events, and its been a passion and pleasure of mine to attend many. While there are many good ones, there are a few that are GREAT. One of my favorites is this weekend’s Wine Road’s Wine & Food Affair. I feel some events are becoming a bit pricey for what they deliver; the Wine and Food Affair is one of the best values, and experiences Sonoma that Wine Country has to offer.
This special “Tasting Along the Wine Road” is November 7 & 8, Saturday & Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm. A Wine & Food Affair is the “premier event for the Wine Road, featuring a weekend of wine and food pairing in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.”
So what is this about? 80 wineries along the Wine Road (aptly named ‘Heaven Condensed’ ) offer food pairings to go along with their wines being poured. This is a ‘passport’ event – meaning you pay one fee, and can visit as many participating wineries as you wish. At just $60 for the entire weekend,or $40 for Sunday, this is an amazing value. People who pre-registered also get a great cookbook of the recipes.
So 5 hours a day for 2 days, and 80 wineries. How do you pick? I have a (longish) list of Wine Road favorites, but rather than rattle those off here (email me), I am going to try and stay neutral, and offer other suggestions to enjoy this event. And this is about food pairings, not just wine.
The Golden Rule: PLAN! Plan, plan, plan, plan. Did I say plan? Do you close your eyes at Safeway and throw random articles into your cart? No. So, don’t just drive down Dry Creek, or Westside Road and stop anywhere. There are great resources on the Wine Road website I am going to suggest – follow and use them.
So where do you start?
First are you going for one day or both? If only one, then its really important to map out a hit list, and start early.
1. What varietals (wine types) do you prefer?
You can partially match areas to this. Of course some wineries produce from all over, but generally if you prefer say, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you should spend time in the area around Forestville – Sebastopol and visit places like Lynmar, Moshin, Balleto etc. These geographic lines do get a bit blurry though, as great Pinot houses like C. Donatiello, Thomas George, etc. are further North. Dry Creek Valley is known as Zin country, but many wineries produce a host of other varietals, especially Syrah, and sometimes Cab, Petite Syrah, and others, as does Alexander Valley. You may want to consider focusing on lighter varietals, like Pinot, in the morning, and then try more full-bodied wines in the afternoon.
(2) Use The Wine Road web site to assist you.
It has many great maps and sorting tools. My favorite page allows you to click and sort by varietals (wine types), region, and amenities. This latter one is very useful for identifying wineries that are open ‘By Appointment’ only. There are a number of wineries participating such as Acorn, John Tyler, Windsor Oaks, etc that normally are open to the public only by appointment, so this event is a great way to just pop in and experience those wineries without having to plan ahead a make an appointment.
You can also use the amenities sort feature to identify the wineries with picnic facilities, If you are really organized in planning your route, you can land at a good picnic spot right around lunch time.
(3) Consult the Participating Winery List.
Eighty wineries are participating – but the Wine Road has over 150 wineries, so don’t assume, double check. Especially for the wineries that are open by appointment only -some of these aren’t participating. It also doesn’t hurt to check with your favorite wineries if they don’t show up as participating. Mounts Family Winery in Dry Creek for example, isn’t on the official list, but will have free tastings for ticket holders, and is offering a food pairing.
(4) Bring a Spit Cup.
If you are serious about tasting wine, and hitting as many wineries as you can, I strongly urge you to bring your own spit cup. Spitting into a dump bucket in a crowded tasting room isn’t something I recommend, and many people find it unpleasant which is one reason why more people don’t. That’s why at industry events and wine classes, red plastic spit cups are usually available. They’re easier to use, unobtrusive, and allow for discreet spitting for those who are shy about spitting in public. I can’t underscore this enough – if you taste 4-5 wines at each location, you may not realize that you are easily consuming 1-2 glasses of wine per locale. However, as little as 5-6 ounces of wine is a enough to start to impact your palette and judgment. Yes the food will help a bit, but not enough, if you are making many stops. At a bare minimum, dump varietals you don’t care for. But that is only going to help a bit. Give spitting a try — for the morning at least. You will be glad you did!
(5) Bring a cooler. And your wallet.
If you like a winery, or they treat you extra special, buy something (or a few somethings!). They are artisans, but this isn’t charity. Weathermen are calling for mild weather this weekend according to the current forecast. It is supposed to be cloudy and 69 on Saturday, and 70 and sunny on Sunday. But these forecasters are the same guys that predicted that the harvest rain would only last one day. Heat is the enemy of wine…even a few hours of heat and sun will negatively impact a bottle. Bring a cooler just in case, and you can stock it with water, red bulls, and nibbles.
6. Start Early, hit off the path wineries later.
The well-known wineries, closer in, can get quite mobbed, especially by mid afternoon. Try and be there when the bell dings, and get an early start. When you map out your route, perhaps do the less familiar wineries, or those off the beaten path, later in the day.
7. In the event you DON’T Pre-Plan (tsk tsk) at LEAST print out the event page which lists the food pairing, and the participating wineries, AND the modified Wine Road map that shows ONLY the participating Wineries.
8. Be Courteous, Please
Some wineries are going to get busy. Try and be respectful of sharing the tasting space (do not stand 4 together at the bar, talking about your shoe purchase). Bond with your significant other and share the space one behind the other, thus doubling the space. Wearing perfume, talking at 120 decibels on your cell, chewing gum, trying to steal wine (true story), or being inebriated and harassing a tired pourer are all faux pax.
(Note to Winery owners and staff – I know it’s a trying, long weekend; but I have witnessed some appalling treatment at ‘bracelet events. In a down economy, and a push to sell Direct to Consumer (DTC), a little pre-event pep talk to your team may be in order. In years past, events like this were where I discovered some of my favorite wineries and – as a result of positive experiences –joined the wine club. )
Let’s all have fun – we are blessed to be surrounded by good people, good food, good wine; and this weekend is a culmination, and celebration of all three.