Sonoma vintners pair experiences with wine

Once upon a time, wine tasting was simple: belly up to the bar, get chatted up by a staffer, taste a rainbow of wines in a flight.

But times change, and trends change, too. The wine drinking public is dismantling the traditional wine tasting model, especially millennials in pursuit of Instagram-able content. People still want to taste wine, certainly, but now they want to do it on horseback. Or while straddling an ATV and motoring through vineyards. Or surrounded by plush comfort in private back rooms. Or while feeding llamas, chickens and goats. They do not necessarily want to taste wine while jockeying for space in rooms crowded with strangers wearing perfume – and the industry is beginning to take notice.

Tasting rooms everywhere are pivoting to accommodate the changing tastes of their clientele.

At Benziger and Landmark wineries, for instance, visitors can chase their pinot with pranayama breathing. These wineries are now sometimes pairing their pours with yoga, 'lighthearted vinyasa style' classes that are available for a fee.

Bohemian Highway Travel Company, which curates 'bespoke wine country experiences' for its clientele, focuses on 'off-beat places and the people behind them.' The company's creative director, Allyson Weekes, explained the rationale for their business model. 'Today's customers want to feel special. They want to meet the winemakers, the owners, they want to see the production facilities. Wineries that offer things like barrel tastings and ATV rides through the vineyard make customers feel valued and like they're not getting a cookie-cutter wine touring experience.'

Repris Wines at the top of Moon Mountain Road has long understood that, and has been rolling out the red carpet for guests for 125 years. Included in the $60 tasting are wine samples, certainly, but guests also tour the property, including 18,000 square feet of natural rock caves. Visitors get a crash course on organic farming protocols, then head up to the turrets for more wine paired with food.

'Chef Matt Tucker pairs all the wines, mostly with light hors d'oeuvres. People are looking for these experiential types of tastings, and we give them a nice, exclusive experience,' said Jason Bullock, marketing manager.

The Donum Estate, known for award-winning pinot noir grown on the rolling hills rising up from the San Pablo Bay in Carneros, has carved its market share from oenophiles and art lovers, a niche that keys on aesthetes. The winery's enormous collection of dramatic art dots both its landscape and the tasting room walls.

'As with the wine we make, the sculpture collection at Donum expresses a sense of place and the important connection between art, nature and the human hand. Those who come to taste Donum's exceptional wines in this intimate, natural setting also have the opportunity to elevate their experience with a tour of the estate to see the ever-evolving art collection. The connection to the land, wine and art is what makes Donum so special,' Sonia Sparks said.

For decades, something good in a glass was enough for most people. Now, they want to have an epiphany, too.

'I don't think there was anything wrong with the previous model, it's just that there's so much more exposure on social media and a lot more competition with experiences,' said Kayla Berthoud, marketing coordinator at Larson Family Winery, acknowledging that industry standards are changing. 'We are finding that everyone is wanting a bit more from the wine tasting experience, so we've added bocce ball and cornhole outside near the picnic tables.'

More homey than haute, Larson is a friendly place, with two ancient Labradors on site to greet guests. For Halloween they hosted a canine costume contest, one of many unique events calendared through the year. 'We welcome kids and dogs year-round at Larson, and our customers love to make it a great family day,' Berthoud said.

For wine aficionados motivated by risk and reward, Chateau St. Jean offers a glass of bubbles and a locked room. To get out, guests must divine the answers to a series of riddles and puzzles, escaping into a second locked room for a second glass of wine and more sleuthing. The 'Unlock the Chateau' escape room experience ends with a flight of wines, conflating a memorable afternoon with the St. Jean brand.

'The response from the people who have done it so far has been unbelievable. They have had so much fun with it and said that it's an experience they will remember forever,' said general manager Mike McNeil.

Gundlach Bundshu, California's oldest family-owned winery, has seen plenty of trends come and go. But the taste for experiences seems less like a craze than a paradigm shift, and the winery has developed a multi-pronged approach. In addition to the lively music venue carved from the grounds of its Denmark Street facility, they've established a mixed-use space in a narrow alley off the Plaza where customers can shop and create while sipping GunBun wines. Abbot's Passage hosts Saturday 'maker sessions,' where guests engage in focused creativity, making everything from bitters from their gardens to 'living jewelry' made from green things.

'The wine industry's target audience is experience-seekers, folks who really love to discover something,' said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. 'They want walk away with a memory, a lifestyle experience like they've never had before. And our Sonoma Valley vintners are doing a really beautiful job of delivering that.'

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