It’s now a tradition – a group of us attend Winter Wineland together every year. What is Winter Wineland you say? It’s an event put on by the Wine Road organization. Usually held over MLK weekend in January, it’s a two-day tasting event. For a pretty reasonable fee – usually around $65 for the whole weekend – attendees are able to visit around 100 different wineries in the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Russian River Valley AVAs. It was this event in 2018 that introduced me to the Russian River Valley.
The weekend is a wonderful opportunity to discover and visit a great selection of new wineries. Over the years I’ve come to use this as an event to find new wineries that I want to come back and visit on my own. These weekends can be crazy. You’ll likely get palate fatigue if you visit as many as we do. But it’s fun – especially with a group of friends!
The Wine Road puts on a few, similar events throughout the year. They do a Barrel Tasting Weekend in May (this year they’re offering it over two different weekends). And, they do a Wine and Food Affair in early November. Unfortunately, due to the fires in the area it was canceled in 2019. I plan to attend that one later this year as well. All of the wineries prepare a dish to pair with their wines – and they share the recipe online! It sounds perfect for me as I love pairing food and wine.
We have a strategy we typically employ when planning our trip. We usually start at the northern end on the first day and work our way down towards Healdsburg. This year we chose Zialena as our first stop. None of us had ever visited Zialena. They’re located up in Geyserville so it fit our requirements! Being that they’re an Alexander Valley winery, we received a fun vertical tasting of their Cabernet Sauvignon (2014-2016 vintages) as well as a sample of their 2013 Zinfandel.
Next we headed down Route 128 to deLorimier. This was not a new stop for a couple of us. I knew that I really enjoyed their wines. And I knew that one of my girlfriends had enjoyed some of the deLorimier wines I’d shared with her recently. So, it seemed like a good second stop. I really enjoy their Primitivo – and still did on this visit.
Our third stop was new to everyone. We continued down 128 to Starlight Vineyards and then onto Soda Rock. Soda Rock also wasn’t a new stop for a couple of us. However, one of my friends really wanted to visit and support them after the loss of their tasting room facility in the fires of 2019. They held their tasting in a barn that barely survived the fires on the same property. I had the opportunity to chat with one of the firefighters who was there the night that it burned. He showed me photos of the inside of the barn just as it was starting to catch fire. Luckily they saved the barn that night.
A favorite of just about everyone’s is Ridge. Two of us joked that we’ve never been to one of these weekends without a stop at Ridge. My girlfriends were thrilled they had the opportunity to sample some of their 2016 Monte Bello. They let me sample some too. My palate had clearly been spoiled by two weeks of tasting incredible wines that I wasn’t impressed by the Monte Bello. I appreciated it was amazing. But it didn’t stand out for me.
Next we headed into Healdsburg. Our palates were pretty overwhelmed by Cab and Zinfandel at this point. So when one of my friends mentioned going to Holdredge who focuses on Pinot Noir, we quickly headed their way. Holdredge may have been my favorite winery of the day. Maybe because it was Pinot Noir. But they had a great variety of single-vineyard Pinot Noir that they shared with us. I’ll definitely be adding them to my list to revisit on a day where they aren’t the sixth winery of the day and I have time to savor and enjoy their wines.
We’ve driven into Healdsburg so many times and saw Rockpile sitting there on the traffic circle leading into town. I saw that they were participating, so we gave them a try. I wouldn’t mind revisiting them at some point either. But by this point, I was pretty much over Zinfandel. They shared with me the list of wines they weren’t pouring and I’m interested. I wasn’t surprised by it, but they also shared their strategy for what to pour on weekends like these. They realize that they can open up their pricier bottles, pour through three cases, but that’s not what people are buying. It makes no business sense to share those at events like these. So they stick to lower priced crowd pleasers. However, you can still get an idea for their style of winemaking to know if the rest of their wines may appeal to your palate.
A couple of other new-to-us wineries we stopped by were Stephen Walker and Hawley. At this point, I was done for the day. I don’t remember much about either of those wineries. One of us (not me) had a goal to visit 10 wineries on Saturday. And we were working towards that goal. And we had time for about one more winery. I suggested Sanglier because I knew it was a favorite, and one of the group definitely wanted to revisit them. They share a tasting room with Lurton so some of us can say that we hit 11 wineries on Saturday. I didn’t actually taste any of Lurton’s wine so I can’t officially add them to my list.
Round two! You could tell some of us were hurting from the day before. We knew we wanted to focus on the southern end of the map, Russian River Valley, and Pinot Noir. We decided to start at Martinelli as requested by one of our group. I hear great things about Martinelli. And they’re a winery I definitely need to visit when it’s not an event weekend. I haven’t overly enjoyed anything I’ve tasted at these weekend events. So I want to see what all the fuss is about on my own.
We didn’t have a real plan for the day. We knew we wanted to ultimately end up at Russian River Vineyards and some wanted to hit Jigar. So, we stopped at DeLoach along the way before heading over to Dutton Estate. Here’s where my winery count gets tricky – I visited Dutton Estate on my own earlier in the trip. I didn’t blog about them in my 30 Wineries in 30 Days series as they didn’t fit any of my silly criteria. They’re open to the public and they weren’t new to me. On my first trip out here we visited Dutton Estate and I deemed them worthy of a separate revisit. We all really enjoyed Dutton Estate.
Then we headed up 116 to Russian River Vineyards – which was on our wish list. It wasn’t new to many of us, but it was a favorite – just like our next stop – Jigar. Jigar holds a special place in my heart as they gave me my first taste of a Green Valley Pinot Noir two years ago that started my love affair with the region. And we picked up quite a bit of wine at Jigar before the unfortunate event occurred. While trying to load everyone’s wine into the car, a bottle of Russian River Valley’s Pinot Noir must have hit the ground just right and cracked. Someone called out – everyone grab a glass – and we all gathered around as we tried to extract the cork while wasting as little wine as possible. We must have looked comical in their parking lot. And maybe broke some laws about public consumption of alcohol – who knows.
Our final stop of the day was Taft Street. They were new to all of us and another highlight for me. I’d definitely like to revist them on a separate trip. Though, looking back on the wineries we visited on Sunday, Taft Street was the only new-to-me winery of the day.
While I prefer personal, one-on-one tastings at wineries that provide in depth conversations about farming techniques and clones and barrels and things, I love these weekends, too. I don’t feel the overwhelming pressure to purchase wine at every winery on these weekends. Although, wineries do tend to offer great deals on wines at these events. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore new wineries and start a list of places to revisit on future trips. I don’t typically have high expectations for these weekends but every now you stumble upon something amazing.
It’s important to note that tourism has been down since the fires. So many people saw the devastating photos and videos of Soda Rock on fire and think the whole region was destroyed. That’s not the case! Sure, you can look up on the hillside and still see scorched trees. But regrowth is happening there already. Wineries are open for business – including Soda Rock who has TWO tasting rooms. They’ve set up a temporary tasting room in the barn and have one in downtown Healdsburg. Sonoma County is very much open for business!! I was in the area during the 2019 fires. I visited many wineries as they were just reopening after the power outages. So many were counting on tourism in late October and November for a good end-of-year boost. That didn’t happen for most.