I have always found barrel tasting to be something magical. It isn’t something you get to do on the typical visit to a tasting room if you don’t live in an area that produces wine, you may never get the chance to taste directly from the barrel. That is what makes Barrel Tasting Weekend so special in Sonoma County. For the first two weekends in March, wineries opened their doors and their barrels to thousands of visitors from around the country to have this unique experience.
While the event spans three different AVA’s (Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valley) Katie and I decided to spend our time in the Alexander Valley. After getting a few recommendations on places to visit, we started off at Field Stone Winery.
Field Stone Winery
The event took place in the cave and we were able to enjoy two wines from the barrel. The first was their 2010 Syrah which will be released in May 2012. The dark fruit and jam flavors were quite prominent in this wine and I was surprised at how drinkable it already was. As expected it was still young but it will be one to watch for on its release in 2012.
Another wine to watch for will be the 2009 Petite Sirah from Field Stone. This big and bold wine will not be for the faint of heart as it definitely takes on the depth and richness you expect from this varietal. The earthiness was really starting to come through and with patience and time spent in the cellar, the complexity of the 117 year old vines will fully develop into a truly special wine.
After finishing our barrel tasting experience in the cave we went into the tasting room to try some of their reserve wines. Upon entering we got distracted by the row of bottles lining a shelf with some very familiar logos. Close to many of the writers here at The Oregon Wine Blog, the Beavers and Cougs were prominently displayed.
From Field Stone we made our way up to another winery we had not previously visited. The staff at Hanna had decorated the tasting room into a baseball theme and even though it was all about the SF Giants (Go A’s), it created an atmosphere that was fitting of an event weekend in Sonoma. The environment at Hanna is what I have come to expect from Sonoma county wine events and what attracts people from all over. While most of the crowds were at the tasting counter, their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was being thieved from the barrel in the opposite corner. Being released in January 2012, this Cab was noticeably young and was very tannic. However, if it resembles the ’06 Cabernet when it is released it will be one to grab. While some of my friends in the Northwest may not enjoy this full-bodied wine, California wine drinkers should definitely stop by Hanna now and in the future.
While some wineries, particularly those with small tasting rooms, had trouble providing the experience of tasting out of the barrel (several had already transported the wine into empty bottles and poured from those), Hawkes Winery met and exceeded all of our expectations for the weekend.
A very small, family run operation, Hawkes provided visitors with a chance to taste 3 different single-vineyard Cabernets. All made in the same style, this tasting gave people the chance to understand the effects the terroir makes on a wine. The 2009 Cabernet from Stone Vineyard featured a chocolate and smokey profile whereas the Cabernet from Red Winery Vineyard was much more subtle in its notes of cherry, spice, and leather. The third wine was from Pyramid Vineyard, a young vineyard with plenty of soil diversity within the same vineyard. This Cabernet will continue to mature and will highlight complex flavors that complement a rich body.
Both Katie and I really enjoyed Hawkes as our final stop of the day. While talking with winemaker Jake Hawkes, we also met a wonderful couple who were visiting all the way from Maryland specifically for this event. They attend each year and purchase futures that get them through the year, until the next Barrel Tasting Weekend. Stories like this were not uncommon. We heard of one married couple who returns each year to celebrate meeting each other at this event many years ago.
Sadly, this event can be tarnished at times by overly-excited over-consumers of wine who use it as an inexpensive way to drink too much. While I experience this at any of my stops, I have heard some horror stories of people stealing tickets, yelling at tasting room staff, and disregarding requests for no limos or buses. However, this is such a small amount of the 25,000+ visitors that come to Barrel Tasting each weekend. My experience with Barrel Tasting was friendly staff, friendly volunteers, and a great chance to preview what to expect from Sonoma County in 2012. This event, with such low ticket prices ($20 in advance, $30 at the door) gives everyone from the seasoned oenophile to the most recent box-wine graduate a chance to explore, discover, and fall in love with the world-class wines of Sonoma County.