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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Napa/Sonoma Wineries with Kids

Wine tasting is really an adult "sport" and wineries usually aren't set up with kid activities. If you have the children along what spots will be the least boring for the tykes?

Napa Valley
  • Castello di Amorosa is a replica medieval Italian castle (entry fee)
  • Sterling features a gondola ride up to the winery (entry fee)
  • V. Sattui has a deli and is a good spot for a picnic

Sonoma County
  • Benziger has beautiful grounds, vineyard tram tours, and a playground
  • Cline is in a park-like setting and has a California Missions Museum
  • Francis Ford Coppola has movie memorabilia, a restaurant and a swimming pool

Many wineries have bocce ball courts
You can always let the kids throw bocce balls 
at each other while mom and dad drink   :)
Image from

In any winery the children are likely to be bored while you're at the tasting bar. You are expected to keep you kids in control, safe, and not let them disturb other visitors. This means your concentration will be split between the wine and the kids. If you can't do this then maybe one parent should be with the children while the other tastes.

Family Unfriendly Wineries

Are there wineries that don't want kids? Well, yes, though most won't turn you away. If you're making an appointment to visit then ask.  Some of the more high-end places like Opus One aren't really designed for children.

Alcohol-free things to do

These will appeal to the kids and adults. The redwoods park is free, the rest require an entrance fee.
  • Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville
  • Charles Schultz Museum, from the creator of Peanuts, in Santa Rosa
  • Old Faithful Geyser near Calistoga
  • Petrified Forest between Santa Rosa and Calistoga
  • Safari West between Santa Rosa and Calistoga

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
Image from

  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?