An Insider’s Guide to Surviving Barrel Tasting in Sonoma

Photo: Courtesy of the Northern Sonoma Wine Road

Up in Sonoma, this weekend and next, it’s the annual Barrel Tasting extravaganza in which wineries across the valley offer special tastings of un-bottled vintages and sell futures at a discount. It’s also become in recent years, sort of sadly, a shitshow of epic proportions, featuring busloads and limo-loads of fairly wasted twenty- and thirtysomethings behaving badly, and not likely there to discuss terroir or buy futures. Seriously, tasting room employees share war stories about it every year, including one we heard last year at a winery that shall remain nameless involving two people having sex in a bathroom, resulting in a sink being broken off a wall. So, without further ado, we bring you some tips for actually enjoying some barrel tasting like an adult.

Tip #1: Go Early
First of all, the best days to go are the Fridays, March 1 and March 8, because they won’t be nearly as overrun as the other days when more people are off work. But, assuming you can’t just drop everything and go wine tasting on a workday, we’d recommend focusing any large winery tasting right when they open, at 11 a.m., and moving on to the more off-the-beaten-path places (see below) as the afternoon wears on. Tickets (actually wristbands) will be for sale at all the participating wineries shown here, and note all the wineries pouring on Fridays, and those that ban groups of 8 or more (which is most of them).

Tip #2: Take the Road(s) Less Traveled
Northern Sonoma is pretty big, and the limo drivers don’t know all its hidden gems. If you want to avoid the hordes and savor your wine without being jostled and thwacked by oversized purses, take these words of advice from a couple of anonymous Sonoma wine professionals: “In years past, we’ve found the Russian River valley to be a quieter route, no crowds, yet family run wineries with the owners and winemakers sampling from the barrels. Head down Olivet Road, or out River Road and follow the winery directional signs.” And, “Alexander Valley, because of the geography (wineries spread apart a bit) tends to be a “secret”… the road less travelled except by those in the know.” You heard it here, folks. Also, here are some maps.

Tip #3: Seek Out Deals
The original purpose of this barrel tasting event, which didn’t become quite so crowded until the last ten years or so, was to give wine lovers a chance to taste upcoming vintages and to buy cases at a discount — locking down some bottles that may sell out fast once they’re released. Now, of course, it can be frustrating when you taste something that’s already good in the barrel, and you have to plunk down a bunch of cash without the satisfaction of walking away with any bottles (they’ll be available for pickup or shipping usually in twelve to eighteen months). But do this a couple years in a row, and you’ll build the beginnings of a nice cellar at a 25 to 30 percent discount. Delayed gratification folks. It’s for adults.

An anonymous individual siphoning wine from the barrel using what’s known as a ‘wine thief.’ Photo: cjmartin/Flickr

Tip #4: Be Nice to the Tasting Room People
Seriously. Especially at the bigger places, these people are the front lines in a losing battle with incivility. If you are kind and patient, and seem genuinely interested, they will probably pour you extra things. Now is not the time to get snippy.

An Insider’s Guide to Surviving Barrel Tasting in Sonoma