One of wine country's biggest bacchanals is, of all things, a tribute to delayed gratification.
The basic idea behind barrel tasting sounds so very sober: (1) get a small sample of the latest vintage direct from the barrel, along with some frank talk about the vintage direct from the winemaker; (2) mull it over, then expel the sample in the general direction of the cellar drain—it's unfinished wine, after all; (3) choose to purchase or decline a share of that wine some 12 to 18 months in the future, when it's good and ready to drink, should you deem it worthy of the wait.
Beginning with just eight wineries 40 years ago as a way to entice visitors in the off-season, Wine Road's annual barrel tasting weekend proved so popular that it now spans two weekends, plus Fridays. "At first, it was just bring your own glass and show up," says Debbie Osborn, events manager at the marketing association that includes wineries and lodgings within the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley viticultural areas.
Today, tickets cost up to $70 at the door, with discounts for Sunday drivers and designated drivers. While that's a sevenfold increase from a decade ago, it's still a deal, says Osborn, considering that individual tasting fees of $10 to $20 can quickly add up during a day of touring on any other day. And perhaps there's even a silver lining to the high cost, whether intentional or not. The low cost of admission made barrel tasting a cheap way to get one's drunk on, some critics have noted in past years, taxing winery staff and local residents while blurring the educational premise of the event—being able to chat up the vintner about the drought years' effect on phenol development, say, or even,
So, when do they put the raspberries in the wine?
Wine Road has also banned buses, to cut down on crowd surges. That's never a problem at Acorn Winery, according to Betsy Nachbaur, whose husband, Bill, will be offering samples of his Zinfandel-based field blend from their vineyard that was planted in 1890. "We are never slammed because we're off the beaten path," says Betsy. "We feel very much like we're giving a party in our house." Nachbaur advises that locals take advantage of the Friday option for smaller crowds and a more intimate experience. As a plus, your gratification need not be delayed one day longer into the weekend.
Wine Road Barrel Tasting, March 3–5 and March 10–12, 2017, 11am–4pm each day. Tickets at the door $70 weekend, Sunday only $60. Designated driver ticket $10. www.wineroad.com.