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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

First visit to Sonoma County? Some FAQs

When visiting anywhere you're not familiar with it's good to have a few pointers to start your trip off right. We want you to enjoy your visit to Sonoma County!

From San Francisco or Oakland Airports it's an hour or two drive depending on the traffic and where you're going within Sonoma County. Driving within the county can take longer than you might expect. It's over 45 minutes from Healdsburg to Sonoma and the times between wineries outside of these towns can be well over an hour.

Tasting room locations
If you've been to Napa Valley you've seen the line of tasting rooms up and down Highway 29. Sonoma is much more spread out though there are several areas where wineries are concentrated such as Dry Creek Road, Olivet Road west of Santa Rosa, and Highway 12 thought Sonoma Valley, to name a few. The towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg are full of tasting rooms.

Lodging cost
Good hotels can be had for about $125 a night. B&Bs will be more. You can find basic motels for less. The most expensive place to stay is Healdsburg with Sonoma a close second. Santa Rosa, as the biggest town, will offer the most choices, reasonable rates, and still be near the wineries.

Restaurant cost
Figure dinner at a nice restaurant will be about $25-40 per person before tip and drinks. Dress is casual almost everywhere. You should probably make reservations especially on weekends.

Tasting fees
Each winery sets its own policy with tasting fees generally running from free to $20. An average is probably $10 pp with the fee waived if you buy bottles of wine. Two people can share a taste to cut costs and cut alcohol consumption. Why do they charge? It's not free for them to build and staff a tasting room and pour their product.

When to visit
Winter can be wet and cool, but will be much less crowded. Weekends from July through October will be the busiest. A good all around time would be April/early May or early November. Mid-Sept to mid-Oct is peak harvest season with lots of winery activity plus the weather is usually great.

Winery tasting room hours
Wine tasting is a daytime activity. On average, tasting rooms are open from 11 am to 5 pm seven days a week except major holidays, but all set their own hours. Some open at 10 am or noon. A few are open until 6 or 7 pm. Some are closed mid-week. Some aren't open for drop-in visits, but require an appointment or not open to the public at all. Don't worry, there are a couple hundred open to visitors so you'll find plenty to choose from.

Overwhelmed by the choices of wineries to visit?
Do your homework--pick out a few, maybe near where you're staying that sound interesting. From there you can ask at your hotel and at wineries. But it will help if you can narrow down what you want in a winery: Small family-owned, medal-winning Chardonnay, lots of different wines available, views, picnic grounds, etc. Many wineries offer two-for-one tasting coupons so check their websites and ask at your hotel.

How many wineries to visit in a day
About four is reasonable with a lunch stop in between. Even if you have a driver who is not drinking your palate will be much less discerning after several stops and your wallet will be more likely to open up.

Transporting your wine around
Heat and direct sunlight will ruin wine. Your best bet is a cooler or styrofoam wine shipper.

Getting wine home
You cannot carry it onto a plane, but you can check it through. If you have just a couple bottles many wineries sell sealing bubble-wrap wine bags. You can buy a styrofoam shipper to pack and check your wines through. You can ship it yourself from a UPS store.

Cellar or vineyard tours
A few offer tours of their production facility or their vineyards. Some have self-guided vineyard tours, but most are not set up for tours.

Bringing food and picnic at a winery
Many wineries have picnic tables available.

Bringing your own wine or other beverages
You cannot open any alcoholic beverage on winery property unless you've purchased it there. Not every winery will be permitted to allow you to have open alcoholic beverages on their property. That is, some are licensed for by the glass or bottle consumption on their property, some are not. It's generally only those with a picnic area. You can bring any non-alcoholic beverages you want.

Wineries with a restaurant or deli
There are only a couple wineries with restaurants and a few others with a deli. Several others have things like cheeses and bread for sale. Some offer food and wine pairings, but this won't substitute for lunch. It's always best to pack a picnic or plan your lunch stop ahead of time.

Special wine events
There are a few major wine events during the year plus many other smaller ones. Check an events calendar (there are seasonal event calendars on this blog).

Bringing dogs to the tasting room
Some are dog-friendly, but ask first. If you see any kind of food service assume not.

How to dress
As I said it's pretty casual here. You'll look out of place with a coat and a tie. It's important to understand the weather to be comfortable. Temperatures vary widely from the morning to mid-day to evening so dress in layers. Even in the summer you might want that sweater in the morning and evening even though it's t-shirt weather in the afternoon. Different parts of the county will be warmer or cooler than others. If you're coming out of a restaurant at night into chilly air and start to grumble about, "It's warmer back home" remember world-class wine grapes require that cooling influence.

Not much especially outside of Santa Rosa. You can go to a locals bar, a beer bar, or a club, but you've probably already had enough to drink. There's always a movie after dinner. There's a couple evening farmers' markets or there's sunset at the coast.

Why visit Sonoma County rather than the famous Napa Valley
Sonoma is less crowded, less expensive, there's a wider variety of wines available, and maybe we're a bit friendlier (at least that's what I've heard).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Big changes coming to Treasury Wine Estates?

Treasury is one of those "wine corporations" that own many wine brands. They once were part of Fosters of Australia until being spun off by the parent company largely because of poor performance by the wine division.

Several months ago Treasury fired their CEO for dumping an oversupply of wine and taking a write-off.  Dumping over $30 million in wine tells of other problems within the company.

They have a new CEO promising "structural changes." In corporate-speak that means wineries will be sold and jobs will be lost. Michael Clarke, the new leader, has held top jobs in the food industry, but has no wine experience. Why hire someone with no wine experience? So they can come in with no emotional ties to anything in Treasury's past and start cutting. Clarke has also been quoted as saying, more bluntly, "We have too many brands."

You have to worry about Treasury's upper management's link to their products when their corporate byline reads, "One foot in the vineyard, one foot in the boardroom."  Really? Treasury's leadership calls the U.S. market "challenging," but "a real opportunity" meaning they aren't doing as well as expected. Over the last few years they've put an American office in Napa, but as yet aren't seeing results.

Treasury is based in Australia and the local financial analysts say they should sell off their American holdings. Treasury owns three dozen wine brands in Australia & New Zealand. They have several wine labels in the U.S., both large and small, including Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Meridian, Souverain, St. Clement, and Stags' Leap.

So what will the new CEO do to restore investors' confidence? Historically stock prices rise when people get laid off as it shows the company is serious about saving money. With multiple labels in several countries an easier way is to sell off holdings or entire regions. As they haven't cracked the U.S. market very well some of the U.S. wineries will likely be sold. Or the entire U.S. operation could be spun off just as Fosters did with Treasury a few years ago. If they try to sell a couple individual wineries you have to wonder who are potential buyers? Maybe someone like Constellation Brands or Diageo buys Beringer, maybe the Chinese do. Another possibility is Pepsi or Coke as the soft drink business is, er, softening although Coca-Cola tried the wine business years ago and got out. Fosters paid $1.5 billion for Beringer Vineyards 13 years ago.

This all breaks in the news at the same time as Constellation Brands, a large beer, wine, and spirits company out of New York, has just announced huge profit gains, largely from their beer holdings.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thinking outside the bottle

The single-serve wine pouch

In the last few years people have come up with various unique wine containers. Will any of these ever put a dent in the ol' cork-in-a-bottle "wine delivery system?"

There are box wines, of course. More recently, packaging like the Tetra Pak has been introduced as a  more earth-friendly alternative. These are cheaper to produce and ship plus can be used anywhere glass is forbidden (like on a beach or at a sporting event).

The latest is from Spotwine. These are a bit different as they are single serving sizes and come in an 8-pack. You know, a juice pack for adults. Just throw a bunch in an ice bucket and you're ready for guests. Of course, the first question will be, "Is the wine in them any good?" Will premium wine producers use this sort of packaging? The perception has always been if the wine isn't in a corked glass bottle it can't be good.

Image from
Packaging like this is for casual events so I expect to see a lot more Pinot Gris in these than I do Napa Cabernet.

Other folks are already on the market with other single-serve wines, like Stack Wines or Zipz, that put wine in a plastic wine glass. Not so earth-friendly and plastic can influence the nose and flavors of what's inside.

A few craft brewers are using 12 oz cans as an alternative to glass. Maybe a few premium wineries will look at something besides glass, too.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sonoma State University and the Wine Business

  Most West Coast wine lovers know about the University of California in Davis as the center of American wine growing and wine making knowledge. Fresno State University offers similar degrees, but isn't nearly as well known. These schools and others offer a few wine business classes focusing on running a winery, not just making wine.

  Over the last few years Sonoma State University has put together a wine business program. This initially grew out of their general business bachelors and masters program to focus on winery-specific needs.  SSU offers BS and MBA degrees in wine business management plus certificate programs aimed at helping those already managing wineries or those looking to start up a new one.

  Their Wine Business Institute has a Board of Directors with local wine executives from Constellation Brands, Duckhorn, Gallo, Korbel, Wells Fargo Bank, etc. That's a lot of brain power on what it takes to run a winery.
Ray Johnson
Head of SSU's Wine Business Institute
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  When people think of a winery they might picture a mom-and-pop operation with a winemaker and maybe someone in the cellar. The truth is more complex as with any business you need financial experts, labor law knowledge, etc. You have to know about compliance as there are lots of alcohol-related laws ranging from what can go on your label to where you can sell wine. There are laws around operating a tasting room. There are safety requirements in the cellar and so on. Larger wineries may have a general manager, a finance manager, a head winemaker, assistant winemakers, IT, a wine club manager, a tasting room manager, plus all their staff. It's run like any other business and some do it better than others because they've been properly trained.

  After all, you can't just make wine, you have to make a profit! I hope that doesn't burst anybody's bubble on the romance of the wine industry, but it is a business.

  Other schools, such as Washington State University, have also seen the need for business knowledge in the wine industry and are offering similar programs. Sonoma State University was the first in the U.S. and seems to have the most developed program.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Food Pairing with White Zinfandel

You want to have that special meal and you've got that special white zin. What food will show off your wine / food pairing skills?

Ball Park Franks - The saltiness and fat go nicely with your wine of choice. Skip the onions though as they will mute the subtleties of the wine.

Marie Callender's Chicken Pot Pie- Loaded up with 34 grams of fat and almost 1,000 grams of sodium this baby needs your best white zin served really cold.

Going out to dinner? Take along you prized bottle of white zin to have with Chili's Restaurant's Southern Smokehouse Burger with Ancho Chili BBQ. 2,400 calories and 140 grams of fat! A meal to remember.

You can always bring home a bucket of KFC. This is your chance to go a little snobby and break out the Beringer Sparkling White Zinfandel. That special someone in the wife beater will want to spend the night!

Yes, it is April 1st. Why?

Monday, March 31, 2014

What states drink the most wine?

Per wine industry folks at the Beverage Information Group, New England, Florida, and the West Coast are the biggest consumers of wine in the U.S. Although #1 on the list is actually the District of Columbia--nothing like a tipsy Congress!
Drink up D.C. We're probably better off
if you're all a little buzzed
Image from

DC and New Hampshire are the top per capita drinkers of wine while Mississippi and West Virginia are on the bottom (even beating out Utah).

Article, including a map, from Business Insider.

BTW, North Dakota and New Hampshire (again) are tops in beer consumption.

Friday, March 28, 2014

While everyone was worried about the California drought ...

There have been lots of questions about, and lots of speculation around, the effect of the drought on California's wine grape crop for 2014. (Though you should probably worry more about food prices this year).

While this has been going on in California, the Finger Lakes wine growing region of upstate New York has been declared a disaster area by the federal government. The bitter cold winter has destroyed many of the buds that would become this year's crop. It's not yet known if this just means the 2014 yield will be much lower than normal or if there is widespread permanent damage to vines.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wine, Inc.

Who actually makes the wine you purchase? There are lots of different labels out there, but that doesn't mean each is a small family operation. The large companies own multiple labels and they make it difficult to know you're drinking a "corporate" wine.

These three companies make half of the wine you find on American store shelves:

Gallo - A privately-owned company headquartered in Modesto, CA. Some of their labels are André, Barefoot, Carlo Rossi, Louis Martini, MacMurray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco, Turning Leaf and William Hill. Gallo owns about 70 different labels, some based in foreign countries.

Constellation - Based in NY where they started as a single winery Constellation expanded rapidly to become a top-level wine, beer, and spirits company. They operate in 40 facilities around the world including U.S. brands Clos du Bois, Franciscan, Mondavi, Ravenswood, and Simi.

The Wine Group is a generically-named San Francisco Bay Area-based company that started as Coca-Cola's entry into the wine business in the 1970s. They own Almaden, Franzia, and Mogen-David--about 24 labels in all.
The next three on the list combined are smaller than any one of the previous three:

Trinchero is a family-owned wine group that started with Sutter Home White Zinfandel. They own over 30 labels in all including Joel Gott, Montevina, Trinity Oaks, and one that made the news recently, Duck Commander.

Treasury - Fosters spun off its wine division several years ago and Treasury seems to have had their troubles ever since (they've just appointed a new CEO after firing the last one for dumping millions of dollars worth of wine down the drain). They own over 50 brands including Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Meridian, Souverain, and Stags' Leap. They are very much a wine corporation with revolving CEOs, a board of directors, and I've seen lots of corp-type job openings for finance, marketing, IT, etc.

Bronco - Fred Franzia, a nephew of Ernest Gallo, is best known for Charles Shaw (aka two buck chuck) along with Forestville, Hacienda, and about 60 other labels. He originally started the Franzia wine company that was later purchased by Coca-Cola (see The Wine Group above). Ol' Fred has had his run-ins with the law a couple times in his business life.

These companies are responsible for most of the wine you see in the marketplace. Is that bad? There are efficiencies to doing things on a large scale otherwise they wouldn't be in business. They are growing significantly every year with much of that growth from adding new labels to their portfolio.

I do believe that "boardroom winemaking" leads to a homogeneous wines. That is, if some particular wine or style of wine gets popular then they all will make it that way. For example, I see this in visitors to California wineries who are surprised that all CA Chardonnay isn't oaky and buttery.

There's a lot of wine styles out there that aren't all made like Barefoot and Franzia, but these small producer wines are dwarfed in the marketplace as they can't compete for shelf space with the big boys who muscle them out. That's too bad for you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Everybody wants a wine tasting room

Sonoma Raceway (aka Infineon, aka Sears Point) is home to Indy Cars, NASCAR, and NHRA racing. It now wants to expand into other entertainment such as holding concerts. But one change speaks Sonoma County all the way: They want to add a wine tasting room. 

Not sure if the tasting room would be open every day or only during major events. Not sure what wines they'll pour, but Andretti Winery isn't far away--I'm sure Mario will want in. Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress (a NASCAR team owner) also have "hobby" wineries. Also nearby is Adobe Road Winery owned by a professional sports car racer.

I wouldn't be surprised if Sonoma Raceway gets their own label. It's an eleven turn track so I suggest coming up with a wine named after each turn. Turn two is the most fun; turn ten the scariest, so they'll want to take that into account. The "fun" wine might be a Pinot Grigio blend. The turn ten corner, that puts hair on your chest, could be a Petite Sirah maybe.

Of course, the tasting room and all the other changes they wish to make will depend on their neighbors and the county.

They'll want to sell trinkets like this wine bottle holder
Image from

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Alternative wine varieties

Tired of the same ol' Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot?

Just because these three are the most popular wines in America doesn't mean other, lesser known wines, won't work for you. There are thousands of wine grape varieties in the world, but realistically there are a few dozen that you can find in the store. These alternatives are semi-easy to find.

Chardonnay is the top-selling wine in the U.S. Try a white that's originally from the Rhone area of France and now grown in many parts of the world.
A Rhone-style blend

Viognier (vee-ohg-nyay) can be similar to Chardonnay in body and flavors, but tends to be aromatic and can have more complex flavors.  Other similar whites are Marsanne and Roussanne. These three can also be blended together to make a nice white wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most popular wine in the country. You may not be in the mood for a big, heavy Cab so try one of these.

Tannat is grown in France and is very popular in South America.  There are a few American ones available. Often you'll find Tannat used in a blend, maybe with Cabernet.
Tempranillo is a full-bodied Spanish red wine also found in California, Texas, and South America.
Cabernet Franc
An alternative to either Cab or Merlot

Look for a Bordeaux-type blends where Cabernet isn't the primary grape. These blends are generally softer and easier drinking than a "straight" Cabernet and often have more more interesting aromas and flavors. The other grapes usually found in the blend are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Also, you can find Cab/Syrah blends. Merlot and Malbec, of course, are well-known varietals in their own right.
If you are in the mood for a heavy-duty wine, but don't want Cabernet, then try a Petite Sirah -- it will stand up to pretty much any meal you can throw at it!

Merlot is the third most popular wine in the U.S. Lots of people are tired of the mediocre Merlots for sale and have gone to Malbec already. Instead try to find one of these.

Carignane (cah-reeg-nahn) has Spanish/French/Italian  heritage. There once was a fair amount planted in California, but not so much anymore except in jug wine blends. That's too bad.
Barbera and Sangiovese are of Italian origin and are made for food.
Carignane, Barbera and Sangiovese and can also sub in for a Zinfandel.
A Grenache / Syrah blend
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Grenache (gren-aash) is actually one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, but is just recently gaining popularity in the U.S. Grenache can be seen as a varietal on its own or in blends, such as with Syrah. It's a nice lighter-style red that can also sub for Pinot Noir at the dinner table.

Have fun exploring!