The Wine Road Barrel Tasting was an unlikely backdrop for a marriage proposal Saturday amid the hoopla of 50 fraternity brothers and sorority sisters cheering on the newly engaged couple.
The couple and friends were among thousands of people coaxed to Wine Country for the weekend by a break in the weather and the chance to taste young wines before they have been bottled. Limousines and luxury vans snaked through the backroads of the Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.
The event, which kicked off for the 36th time Friday, offers tasters a glimpse of the future and, for some, a chance to reserve allotments of wine once it is bottled 12 to 18 months from now. Tasting continues today, with 100-plus wineries opening their cellar doors from 11 a.m. to 4p.m.
Local law enforcement agencies reported no problems Saturday from an event that in the past has drawn complaints about public drunkenness. A Healdsburg police officer on duty at the event just had to remind people on foot to pour out their wine as they strolled between wineries.
While there were no reports of problematic "power wine tasting," as one limousine driver coined it, the event continues to draw two distinct crowds. One is the serious wine buyer, anxious for the chance to reserve favorite wines. The other is a younger taster who has made a spring ritual of the event. By being pro-active, organizers and wineries are striving to host these two distinct tasters in parallel, without incident.
Groom-to-be Kyle Tripp, 23, of San Ramon said he picked Armida Winery in Healdsburg to propose to Kayla Williams, 23, also of San Ramon, because of the backdrop — the pond, the vineyards, the mustard in bloom — and the ability to build his friends into the ritual.
Lauren Andres, 23, of Orange County tossed a cigarette on the gravel, snuffing it out with her platform shoe before taking a sip of wine. "I had to be here for this," she said.
Cameron Wright, 24, also of Orange County, said the barrel tasting is a "built-in" alumni program for his fraternity. "Wine tasting is so unique to Sonoma State. It works as a reunion."
Bruce Cousins, co-vintner of Armida, also witnessed the proposal and said it went seamlessly. He said he hosted upwards of 600 tasters on Saturday, "with at least half millennials," the generation in the 21- to 31-year-old range.
Cousins said he kept zealous tasters from over-imbibing by welcoming tasters to four pours from the barrel, but charging $10 for five tastes in the winery's tasting room.
"I think a lot of larger wineries like Armida that get big volume are doing this," he said. "I was a little skeptical at first. You always worry about putting people off, but if you make the barrel room experience exciting enough it works."
Chelsea Moore, 23, organized three groups of 15 in vans and said her group bought about five bottles of wine but no futures on Saturday. "The younger crowd wants an actual item in their hand for their money," she said. "They want it now."
That said, vintners throughout Wine Country said the serious futures fans were snapping them up with zeal.
"People are buying multiple cases of futures, which is a good thing. In 2008 and 2009 people weren't spending as much," said co-vintner Carrie Holdredge of Healdsburg's Holdredge Wines,