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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Barrel Tasting Tips

It's coming! The 40th annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting in northern Sonoma County on the first two weekends in March. That's followed by Sonoma Valley's version the third weekend of the month.

The Wine Road Barrel Tasting has turned into a huge event. It's best to know a few things before you go.

Sampling wine in barrels months before it's bottled
image from

  In the old days

This started as a much smaller event as these things often do. It was one weekend only (two days) instead of two weekends (six days total) and it was free! This affair was about trying barrel samples then buying futures. "Futures" means you buy now at a discount, but don't get the wine until after it's bottled, maybe 12 to 18 months out.

In more recent times

The barrel tasting turned into quite the party. In fact, a little too much of a party for some wineries, locals, and participants. As it got more popular a second weekend was added to thin out the crowd and the price keeps creeping up.

What to expect now

There will be over 100 wineries participating the first weekend with about 75 on the second. This gives you plenty of choices. It's $50 now for one weekend, but considering that tasting fees average about $15 it's a bargain.

You often get to talk with winemakers and cellar crew at this event so it's a great time to ask questions.

Anywhere with a concentration of tasting rooms, as in Healdsburg and along Dry Creek Road, you'll find the crowds. If you don't like this sort of thing look for areas where the wineries are more spread out, like western Russian River Valley and northern Alexander Valley.


Figure out ahead of time what wineries you want to visit or at least your basic route for each day. Saturday afternoon is a very busy time so this is when you may want to avoid the busiest areas.

Come of Friday if you can. Not every winery participates on Friday, but plenty still do and it's so much less crowded. It's a great time to visit those areas that will be teeming with people on Saturday.

Not every winery will accept limos or buses during this event so check ahead. Not every winery will accept groups of six or eight or more so if you traveling with several friends check ahead.

There's no food served so plan for lunch. Either take food or decide where you'll be at lunchtime so you can find food. Hint: The Dry Creek General Store on Dry Creek Road will be swamped so find somewhere else. Taking food and bottled water with you is the best bet.

The event starts at 11 am and ends at 4 pm. Even though a winery may be open past four does not mean you can get barrel samples after that time.

Take breaks during the day for food and water. Showing up drunk gets you turned away and is, of course, a dangerous situation on the roads. It doesn't matter if you have a driver. Sip and spit. Take along your own "dump bucket" such as a red Solo cup.

You will be getting a souvenir Wine Road glass at your first stop. You'll want a safe way to store them in the vehicle between wineries. A beer six-pack holder works or an empty wine case box. If you have several people you may want to put your initials or somehow tag each glass so you know who it belongs to. Wash your glass out in the evening so it's at least semi-clean for the next day (you don't get a new glass each day).

Hate to be a buzzkill, but

  • Don't show up drunk to a winery or to dinner afterwards and expect to be served more alcohol.
  • The Wine Road offers a Designated Driver ticket (it allows zero drinking for the weekend during the event).
  • It's easy to overindulge when there is so much good wine available in a relatively small area. We want to to enjoy yourself and come back to see us again!

What to do for the most enjoyment

  • Plan.
  • Eat breakfast and lunch.
  • Sample barrel wines and bottled wines and learn about how the wine changes with barrel aging. Ask questions.
  • Take a shot at buying futures. Maybe split a case with a friend.
Young lady being served from the barrel
Perhaps she should have worn a different color in case of spills 
Nothing stains worse than Petite Sirah out of a barrel   :)
image from

Info on buying futures from the Wine Road.