Few consumer products feature a showroom, a personal guide and a test drive. Cars come to mind, of course, as do designer fashions. But visits to winery tasting rooms near and far have got to be the most enjoyable commercial experience under $50,000.
Indeed, you can play out your buying-trip fantasies for the price of a few bottles per stop. Pretend you are on the advance team for a Food Network show, or be your own client and make a list of every wine and gift you’ll need for the next six months. It’s your big chance to be The Decider.
Tasting rooms really are the best place to buy the stuff. You sample and buy the wines personally, rather than relying on third-party reviews that may have been conducted a year earlier. Plus, the wines you buy will be in the best condition of their all-too-short lives. Having never left their birthplace, these innocents haven’t known the storage perils of distribution and retailing. (Keep them pure as you go with a big ice chest in the trunk.) Best of all, each bottle you bring home comes with the memory of the day you discovered it.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that wineries happen to flourish in the most beautiful ag lands on earth; that there are hundreds of them within an hour or so’s drive of Sacramento; that the industry itself tends to attract the most passionate people you’ll find; and that the surprising stories of how they made their way to pouring the juice in your glass may inspire you to think of your own bliss wherever it may lie waiting.
So grab a friend or two, pack plenty of water and some picnic provisions, and wear something dribble-proof if you are just learning how to spit. It’s the tastiest shopping trip you’ll ever take.
Don’t-Miss Northern California Cellars
â€¢ Sobon Estate: Eclectic varietals, winemaking museum
â€¢ Terre Rouge Wines: Enthusiastic staff, Chef Jane O’Riordan’s great food, cool shopping
â€¢ Navarro Vineyards: Incredible views from working farm, picnic area
â€¢ Handley Cellars: African art collection and world-beat shopping
â€¢ Stevenot Winery: Stop by the tasting room in historic Murphys or take the pretty drive to the nearby winery
â€¢ Chatom Vineyards: Lovely gardens and picnic area
â€¢ Bogle Vineyards: Deck with view, relaxing drive from downtown Sacramento
â€¢ Six Hands Winery: Open for special picnic days on the Marks family’s historic ranch near Walnut Grove, and by appointment
â€¢ Cedarville Vineyard: A top-notch tutorial from vine to glass (appointment needed)
â€¢ Holly’s Hill Vineyards: Family-run, kid-friendly, with great views
â€¢ McNab Ridge Winery: Veteran winemaker John Parducci chose the old McNab homestead ranch for this new venture with his grandson, winemaker Rich Parducci
â€¢ McDowell Valley Vineyard: General-store theme in 105-year-old building across from Hopland Brewing
â€¢ Michael-David Vineyards: Farm stand, cafe, pick your own flowers
â€¢ d’Art Wines: Microwinery, new to the scene, original art
â€¢ Smith Vineyard: Organic vineyard and tasting with the Smith family in a red barn near Grass Valley (open Saturdays 1â€“5 p.m.and by appointment)
â€¢ Nevada City Winery: Food-and-wine pairings on the first Thursday of the month, souvenir shopping
A Wine Taster’s Bill of Rights
As a visitor to a tasting room, you have the right to . . .
â€¢ ask questions. You’re there to learn.
â€¢ an educated staff. No blank stares or made-up fun facts: just the straight scoop.
â€¢ come to your own conclusions. Staff shouldn’t ramble on with lists (honeysuckle, quince, etc.) of what you’re supposed to smell.
â€¢ a spit bucket. Preferably one that’s been emptied recently.
â€¢ a palate-cleansing nibble. Crackers are great, but please hold the garlic-jalapeÃ±o cheese dip.
â€¢ leave without buying anything. But if you like the wine, be sure to say thanks with a purchase.
Tasting Room Faux Pas
â€¢ Dumping or spitting wine into the water carafe
â€¢ Bringing children who do not behave because they have nothing to do
â€¢ Wearing perfume or aftershave
â€¢ Hanging out at the bar as if it’s a bar, rather than tasting through once and then making room for others
â€¢ Wandering around office or winery areas not open to the public
â€¢ Rifling through folded winery-logo shirts or other merchandise and leaving a mess
â€¢ Trying to self-serve from bottles on the bar
â€¢ Arriving under the influence (usually via a limo)
â€¢ Excessive public displays of affection
â€¢ Pushing up or pulling away a glass midstream while someone is pouring
â€¢ Sweet-talking one’s way in at closing time, then not buying anything
Elaine’s Pick of the Month
2004 Vino Noceto OGP Zinfandel Amador County
is a sophisticated Zin from a legendary vineyard: Original GrandpÃ¨re.
Aromas: damson plum, vanilla, sagebrush.
Flavors: baking spice, raspberry, plum skin.
Palate: plush, balanced, with an elegant finish. ($28 at the winery)
Wine Trivia Contest
>> What historic winery has the oldest tasting room in the Sierra foothills? a) Boeger; b) Montevina; c) MadroÃ±a; d) Ironstone
E-mail your answer to email@example.com by June 15. The winner will receive a copy of A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country by Rick Kushman and Hank Beal. Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.
We’ve got a winner! In April, we asked: Which wine-grape variety did California vintners crush the most in 1990? The correct answer: French Colombard. The winner, Gary Schanz of Sacramento, received an insulated wine tote.