Once upon a time, visitors to Sonoma and Napa wineries were content with a complimentary sample of wine in a rustic tasting room before moving on down the road to the next location. Some were on a mission to hit as many wineries as they had time for in a day. Swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit—over and over again.
As each new generation of tourists arrived, they sought out wineries that offered something different from a standard tasting at the bar. Along the way, cave tours and blending seminars were offered, among other activities. Members-only wine clubs began popping up, offering a whiff of exclusivity for aficionados who agreed to spend good money to receive regular shipments of a producer’s wine, sometimes available only to members. Today, nearly every local winery offers a wine club, and the days of free tastings are long gone, with a few exceptions.
Food-and-wine pairings upped the ante even more, providing another way for wineries to keep guests engaged. These pairings offer seated education focusing on how wine enhances food, and vice versa. Chefs on staff at wineries are now commonplace, tasked with creating gourmet food bites custom-made for their wine varietals.
These activities provide additional revenue streams for wineries, which can charge guests a set fee—sometimes pricey—to partake in the fun. It also keeps visitors on the property longer, and typically translates into sales missing from the serial sipper who bounced from one tasting room to another without making a purchase. Simply put, it’s not your father’s tasting room any longer. Some wineries are pushing boundaries as they create one-of-a-kind adventures aimed at visitors who are willing to spend several hours—and many more dollars—learning about the winery and becoming informal brand ambassadors for its products through social media.
Long-established wineries such as Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood are finding innovative ways to draw new business. To tap into the escape room phenomenon, Chateau St. Jean introduced “Unlock the Chateau” last May. The nearly century-old structure was once a private home and features many different rooms. Developing an escape scenario intended to provide wine education, together with history of the chateau, was the brainchild of one of the vice presidents, explains Ingrid Cheng, direct-to-consumer senior marketing manager for Treasury Wine Estates, owner of Chateau St. Jean.
“The wine education and history revealed in Unlock the Chateau is immersive,” she says. “We looked for something a little out of the ordinary to offer guests, and this is thought provoking. It gives participants much more information than they would receive just talking with a wine educator.”
Three existing rooms upstairs in the structure were repurposed for Unlock the Chateau. Guests begin their escape experience in the first room with a glass of bubbly. A glass of wine is awarded when the group unlocks the second room, and when they break free, they’re treated to a tasting flight. The flight is both a victory and consolation prize—everyone gets the tasting regardless of whether or not they were successful.
Limited to between six and 12 people, Unlock the Chateau can be a great team-building experience, says Cheng, and has proven popular as a corporate activity. “Our hospitality team is well versed in catering to corporate events and groups. We strongly suggest no more than 12 people, as it can get unwieldy with more. Six is ideal, and it works best if those six people know each other, because they have to problem-solve a series of puzzles together within a certain time frame. The wine helps break down communication barriers and allows teammates to synergize.” The experience lasts approximately two hours, costs $70 per person, includes cheese, and is currently offered once daily, seven days a week. Cheng says the winery is discussing expanding the frequency, based on its growing popularity.
In west Sonoma County, Red Car Winery near Graton offers a “forest bathing” experience, in which visitors take a meditative walk in Freestone’s Zephyr Farms vineyard led by Jenny Harrow, a certified forest therapy guide. Zephyr Farms is a seven-acre property surrounded by redwoods and kissed by frequent coastal fog. It’s also where Red Car sources Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
Forest bathing is based on shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” an activity developed in Japan in the 1980s and widely used in that country today for preventive health care and healing. Red Car first hosted forest bathing in 2017. Two walks were offered in 2018, and two are scheduled for 2019, so far. As its popularity increases, the winery may consider adding more dates. Red Car drives participants to and from the vineyard from its tasting room at the intersection of Highway 116 and Graton Road. The two-hour walk costs $45 per person.
“Rather than offering a traditional vineyard tour, this special walk with a therapy guide is something much different,” explains Kendall Busby, marketing coordinator for Red Car. “We have a wonderful tasting lounge, but our visitors are increasingly interested in getting out into the vineyards to see where our wines are coming from.”
At the rural site, the walkers absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and the vineyard, says Busby. “Jenny explains to the 12 to 15 forest bathers what to expect, and she asks all the participants to share with their fellow walkers how they were introduced to wine.”
Busby says forest bathing is primarily a community-building exercise. “Jenny makes multiple stops, and then brings everyone together to talk about how they feel and what they’re thinking about. She gathers them in a circle under a redwood tree to talk through the meditation process and what it means. The group disperses and each person is encouraged to sit for a few minutes to contemplate the walk. It’s a quiet process, and it’s less about the wine than being in nature. Then the group reconvenes to sample some wine, along with snacks.” A final wine tasting flight back at Red Car completes the experience.
Sonoma County is not lacking in breathtaking views, so many wineries use their mountain properties to lure visitors who prefer an outdoor adventure at elevation with their wine tasting.
A private experience with a sweeping 360-degree view atop Baker Ridge in the Russian River Valley is offered by Thomas George Estates, on Westside Road near Healdsburg. The winery recently introduced a seasonal safari, from spring through early fall, in which guests are chauffeured in a vintage Pinzgauer, a high-mobility all-terrain vehicle, from the winery to the ridge top. Guests receive a bottle of reserve wine of their choice worth about $75, and a three-course lunch is provided in a beautiful setting, nestled near the vines. Eight people can share the private experience, or just one person who prefers to go solo.
“We only started doing these safari tours in 2018 and it has really caught on,” says Jason Robinson, who handles sales and marketing for Thomas George Estates. “The top of Baker Ridge provides one of the most spectacular views of the Mayacama Mountain Range, and our safari guests enjoy their lunch in a designated picnic area just feet away from our vines, beneath a 150-year-old black oak tree. The table settings are beautiful, just like in a fine restaurant. It’s a really special treat for visitors.”
A host leads guests in the Pinzgauer to the top of Baker Ridge, sets up their picnic lunch, and lets them enjoy their privacy. When ready to return to the tasting room, they radio their host via two-way radio for the ride back. Excursions are offered daily and require a minimum 24-hour advanced reservation. The cost is $175 per person. One excursion is at 11 a.m., and another group can choose the 1 p.m. option. Only two excursions daily are offered, costing $175 per person ($140 for club members), and guests can anticipate a 90- to 120-minute experience. “The safari is dictated by the weather, so if there’s rain, we do our best to reschedule guests. We can only take them to Baker Ridge when the weather is good,” adds Robinson.
in the Alexander Valley, another mountaintop adventure awaits visitors to Stonestreet Estate along Highway 128. Karen Demostene, a VIP estate educator for Stonestreet escorts guests in a Land Rover to their mountain estate where Stonestreet’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc vines overlook the valley. Once at the top, guests enjoy a gourmet box lunch while learning about what it takes to grow and produce wines from this mountain estate vineyard.
“This site is a special place, and we’ve enjoyed hosting small groups for the past several years,” says Demostene. “The tour lasts about three hours, and the views are incredible. On a clear day without fog or clouds, guests can see the outline of Mt. Tamalpais. As we drive them through our vineyards, the ride ranges in elevation from 400 to 2,400 feet. Because there is a lot of open space not cultivated with our vines (less than 15 percent of the estate is planted to vines), there is also wildlife roaming free and lots of native plants and flowers to admire.”
Demostene says Stonestreet is committed to growing and producing wines sourced exclusively from this Mountain Estate Vineyard. “We believe the grapes that grow in those conditions are special, producing powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, soulful Chardonnay and electric Sauvignon Blanc. We enjoy educating wine lovers on what makes the Mountain so unique, but we do it in a lighthearted, fun way.”
The mountain excursion is offered seasonally Monday through Friday, twice a day, once at 10:30 a.m. and again at 1:30 p.m. The morning tour features lunch and wine ($200/per person); the afternoon tour includes wine ($150/per person). There is a six-guest maximum per trip.
Kunde Family Winery near Kenwood promotes a guided, two-hour journey that culminates in a mountaintop wine tasting. The tour begins in the winery’s cave, followed by a comfortable ride via luxury coach to a tasting deck set at 1,400 feet. There, the guide pours a selection of small production and reserve wines for the guests.
“It’s an interactive tour,” says Naomi Doherty, Kunde’s director of hospitality. “We offer it four times daily, with about 10 people for each excursion, April through November ($60/per person). December through March, we offer a seated tasting experience in our Wine Aging Caves. Led by our wine educators, guest enjoy a barrel sample along with an in-depth tasting that explores our wines,” she says.
The Kunde family’s 1,850-acre property is uniquely suited for exploring, and the winery also conducts a private hike lasting three hours ($100). Wine tasting and a box lunch are provided for groups of at least 15 people. “We hear from a lot of corporate groups looking for something different for a team-building activity,” says Doherty. “This hike offers exclusive access behind the scenes.”
Another modestly strenuous hike lasting four hours is scheduled at least twice annually, once in the spring and again in fall. Priced at $40, lunch isn’t provided, but wine tasting takes place in the vineyards where the wines originated. Groups as large as 50 can be accommodated.
For dog and wine lovers seeking a special romp with their canines, fourth-generation winegrower Jeff Kunde and his wife Roberta, together with their own dogs, lead a hike through the Kunde property with other like-minded puppy lovers ($90/per person). A portion of the proceeds from these hikes, offered three times a year, is donated to the Dogwood Animal Rescue Project and the Sonoma County Humane Society.
Dogs and their owners can expect a four-hour walk through vineyard rows, native grasslands, and oak woodlands. Along the way the Kundes explain their sustainable winegrowing and winemaking practices. The hike concludes with a wine tasting and lunch back at the tasting room, where the dogs are rewarded with a “yappy” hour that includes water tasting and doggie treats.
“We always sell out the dog hikes,” says Doherty. “Word-of-mouth is a big contributor to their popularity, and these hikes are also heavily promoted on the social media sites of our animal rescue and rehabilitation partners. Dog lovers are happy to help contribute to these organizations in this way.”
Last year, an article featured in a respected wine industry publication carried the sensational headline, “Why the Tasting Room is Dead.” Despite that grabber, the article was generally positive about the transition from once ho-hum visitor experiences at wineries to far more creative alternatives at many of the newer kids on the block. But even established wineries are finding ways to keep the new generations of visitors more engaged and entertained.
“Tasting and visiting in Wine Country today certainly isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” says Marcia Kunde Mickelson, COO of Kunde Family Winery. “Not only has there been a significant growth in the number of tasting rooms, but the average visitor is now looking for a unique, personalized experience from a winery that they feel engaged with. The experiences have to be fun, otherwise you don’t offer anything unique. Setting yourself apart from the rest with clarity and truth in your story is really important.”
Wineries need to step up their game in terms of experiences being offered at their properties, according to Robinson of Thomas George Estates. “Our consumers are craving something unusual that still ties in as an elevated wine-tasting experience. We will see steady increase of new offerings being rolled out at wineries throughout our region over the next few years, as well at all other winegrowing regions. It’s imperative that we keep up with our consumer demands and continue to make our industry fun and educational for their visits, while also nurturing brand loyalty for years to come.”
Getting out of the tasting room and into the great outdoors appeals to many winery visitors, who can choose beyond-the-ordinary tours and sightseeing. Here are some wineries offering special attractions, nearly all-requiring advance reservations (prices per person).
Balletto Vineyards, 5700 Occidental Rd., Santa Rosa. A self-guided vineyard tour is always available with no appointment necessary. In season, visitors may also walk to the Field of Dreams, the winery’s baseball diamond built for its workers. Games are played on Sunday mornings and anyone is welcome to watch (but no wine drinking is allowed at the field). Once a year, this winery hosts a dog walk to encourage donations to the Sonoma County Humane Society and includes complimentary mimosas and croissants for the humans. Ballettovineyards.com
Chateau Montelena, 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga. Few wineries can boast of having a scenic body of water and Chinese gardens in its backyard with weeping willows, walkways over the lake and brightly colored pavilions. Montelena’s estate tour takes guests throughout the grounds of the winery in a guided walk lasting 90 minutes. They sip wine as they go along, progressively sampling current releases. The $50 tour is offered weekdays at 10 a.m., rain or shine. Montelena.com
The Hess Collection, 4411 Redwood Rd., Napa. From spring through fall, two ATV-centric tours are offered at a winery best known for its magnificent modern art collection. A vine-to-table excursion and lunch starts daily at 11 a.m. ($185), that includes an ATV ride through the property’s historic Mont La Salle vineyard. The three-course lunch is made from ingredients from the winery’s culinary gardens, paired with wines from the estate vineyards and served in a private dining room. Another option is the wine-and-cheese vineyard excursion; with the same ATV ride described, followed by wines paired with artisanal cheeses, fruits, nuts and other estate-grown ingredients. It’s offered daily at 1 p.m. ($135). Hesscollection.com
Round Pond Estate, 875 Rutherford Rd., Napa. The allure of the “liquid gold” olive oil produced by Round Pond is the basis for the “Vino & Olio” adventure. A private two-hour guided tour of the olive groves and mill details the cultivation and processing of olives into oil. The tour includes a wine tasting paired with small food bites produced from the estate’s culinary gardens. The tour is offered Wednesday through Saturday at 10 a.m., with eight guests maximum ($85). Roundpond.com
ZO Wines Estate, 3232 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg. This new addition to the Dry Creek Valley follows a motto of “stay, taste, learn, and explore.” ZO offers a farm-stay experience that includes wine tasting and a wine sensory workshop, together with a tour of the winery and estate ($20). For visitors who want to prolong their time on the property, lodgings include four rooms and a cottage among the vineyards. ZO also books tours of the area through private transportation options, and can also arrange a helicopter ride from the San Francisco and Oakland airports to the Healdsburg airport (with pickup for the short drive to the winery). zowinesestate.com
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