With daytime temperatures in Chicago today forecast to be in the low 20's with blustery winds making it feel much colder, is it any wonder visitors to Sonoma County from the Windy City are almost giddy, and not just from the wine?
"It will be a shock to go home. We can enjoy the sunshine for a few days," said Earl Charnenske, a Chicago banker who is attending this weekend's Winter Wineland, an event involving more than 125 wineries in northern Sonoma County.
As he swirled a glass of cabernet at Robert Young Estate Winery in Geyserville, he became more effusive, contrasting the gray gloom of a Midwest winter to the mild mid-sixties degree temperatures in Sonoma County.
"It's been truly like a heaven to escape and drink great wines," he said.
For Charnenske and his wife, Sue, it was the third time they've flown out to attend Winter Wineland, now in its 21st year.
The two-day event, which continues today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., was expected to attract about 5,000 people from 47 states, said Beth Costa, executive director of Wine Road, the association of wineries and lodgings in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys that organizes it.
The vines are dormant and the crowds are relatively small. Wineries decorate their premises with different themes and offer food pairings, perhaps some special discounts and occasionally uncork their library wines.
The food offerings are distinct, depending on the winery, and range from chili beans to corn chowder, steak, oysters, paninis and wild mushroom bisque.
"I wouldn't think of coming up to Wine Country in January — unless there was an event. It's brilliant. It's sucked us in for the fifth year in a row," said Craig Felberg of Laguna Beach, who was at the Robert Young Winery with his wife and two other couples from Southern California.
"It's the best kept secret in Northern California. I absolutely love this," said Pete Gaudet, a hospital administrator from Fairfield who along with his wife was back for the second time in as many years to Winter Wineland.
"Whoever put this on did it right. It really promotes this area well," he said of the event, which allows weekend access to all the event tastings and offerings for $52.54.
Wine aficionados say they like Winter Wineland because they can talk directly to the winery owners and winemakers. The hectic fall crush is long past, the holiday season is over and there's time to chat about the grapes, micro-climates, tannins and winery history.
"I want to tell our story," said Susan Young Sheehy, fourth generation member of the Young family that came to California during the Gold Rush and settled in Alexander Valley. They later grew prunes before converting to vineyards.
"I try to tell as much in a nutshell, so they go away and know who you are," she said of the guests at Robert Young Estate.
The Swiss chalet theme decor at the winery this weekend, complete with skis, a roaring fire and recorded yodeling, are a nod to the heritage of her maternal grandparents, from Switzerland.
The winter theme was fine, as long as there wasn't any snow to make it more authentic.
Mary Brown, a freight broker from Chicago, joked about the nice weather before heading in to the tasting room.