It's a dress code that has left more than a few guests wanting to disappear in their $260 Diesel jeans or reach for a pashmina to throw over a low-cut cocktail dress that looks downright absurd in a dusty vineyard setting.
In a land where agriculture can be surprisingly upscale, the fashion rules for social events are fuzzy, making it tough to intuit the right look.
Blame it on three little words: "Wine Country Casual." Event hosts, fashionistas and shop owners toss around the term with breezy assumption, as if it were as blatant a no-brainer as swimwear for a pool party. "Wine Country Casual" shows up in verbal directives and formal invitations, as well as the marketing strategies of upscale boutiques that cater to the social set.
But what on Earth does it mean? Is it khakis and Lacoste, a flirty skirt and cashmere sweater, or something sidling close to lam?and chiffon? Is it more Ralph Lauren, Norma Kamali or Juicy Couture?
In fact, some observers of the region's social circuit - a whirl of auctions, harvest feasts, awards nights, galas, charity bashes and salutes of every stripe stretching from the Carneros to the Mendocino Coast - say "Wine Country Casual" is so open to interpretation, so utterly inclusive in a loose, Northern California way, that it can mean almost anything goes.
Carrie Brown, owner of the Jimtown Store in the Alexander Valley, learned soon after her arrival in Healdsburg that if there was a fashion code in Wine Country, no one was consulting it. She dressed for a barbecue in jeans, sweater, boots and a bit of jewelry. But everyone else at the party was all over the fashion map. The hostess in a spangly outfit, her husband in chinos, another guest in a fall skirt and sweater, and the host's father in suit and tie.
"I said, 'Oh, no. I just can't win,'" Brown moaned. "That was 15 years ago. And I say it's still the same."
That freedom of fashion expression leaves a lot of latitude for the veterans comfortable with their own crowd who also know the terrain. They know to dress for the setting and the occasion. No exposed flesh in a chilly wine cave, sensible shoes for any event "set among the vines" or on cold concrete floors, no sober suits when the tone is bacchanalian.
"'Wine Country Casual' is what anybody really wants to put on," said Boots Brounstein, the owner of Diamond Creek Vineyards in Calistoga. "It's being comfortable with yourself; and if you're comfortable with yourself, you're going to be comfortable wherever you go." Whether a guest or playing host, she prefers to blend in safely with the crowd in silk or wool slacks and a dressy blouse.
But an out-of-towner can easily equate country with picnic wear or mistakenly assume that the higher the ticket price, the more formal the attire.
"They think the vineyards are farms and it's going to be casual. They don't realize how sophisticated it is," said Healdsburg clothier Susan Graf, who has outfitted many visitors who flew in for a special event, only to realize with horror that they packed all wrong once they got a load of the region's understated swank.
Former Sonoma County Museum curator Natasha Boas once characterized the dinner attire at an exhibit opening as "very North Bay" with guests in "Zen attire, flip-flops and linen." When the quote appeared in a San Francisco social column, it caused a bit of a stir behind the scenes. But museum executive director Ariege Arseguel confirmed that it was indeed "what the majority of people were wearing."