During harvest, we're more aware that we live in a wine culture where grapes are groomed and prepped for the pick.
We're keyed up by the suspense of it — the pick — and we continue to root for the sleep-deprived winemakers all harvest long as they attempt to dance with, and maybe outsmart, Mother Nature yet again.
Getting close to the action has become sport, and thanks to Bob Fraser of Santa Rosa Junior College, there's a way in. Fraser, who teaches a class on Sonoma County appellations (AVAs), is privy to places that reveal harvest with the most authenticity. Here are some of his suggestions:
<strong>Stryker Sonoma Winery:</strong> This is a favorite choice for a harvest visit in Alexander Valley because winemaker Tim Hardin allows guests to "punch down" grapes during fermentation. There's also plenty of room to roam and ample vineyards, including an "old-vine" zinfandel block. Finally, there's a nice grassy area with picnic tables to have lunch or snacks. 5110 Highway 128, Geyserville, 433-1944, <a href="http://strykersonoma.com" target="_blank">strykersonoma.com</a>.
<strong>Forchini Winery:</strong> This family-owned winery specializes in zinfandel and pinot noir, and what makes it a standout is the scope of the harvest tour they offer. Owners Jim and Anita Forchini and vineyard manager Andrew Forchini lead guests on a journey from harvest to bottle. "Jim has some unique, gravity-fed winemaking processes that are totally mind-boggling," Fraser said. 5141 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 431-8886, <a href="http://forchini.com" target="_blank">forchini.com</a>.
<strong>Graton Ridge Cellars:</strong> This winery has a picnic area with a bocce court, and it's a great spot from which to watch harvest doings. Of course, for those who want a more hands-on adventure, owners Art and Barbara Paul will lead guests to a pinot noir vineyard and demonstrate viticulture practices, finishing up the tour at the winery. As for another perk, Fraser said the winery has a great picnic area. 3561 Gravenstein Highway N., Sebastopol, 823-3040, <a href="http://gratonridge.com" target="_blank">gratonridge.com</a>.
<strong>Pedroncelli Winery:</strong> This multigenerational family winery offers a tour through the vines with a peek at one of the oldest zinfandel plantings in the world. A tip from Fraser: "Try to schedule a visit with Julie Pedroncelli because she will walk you through the vineyards and the winery." 1220 Canyon Road, Geyserville, 857-3531, <a href="http://pedroncelli.com" target="_blank">pedroncelli.com</a>.
<strong>Cline Cellars:</strong> This winery offers something intriguing for history buffs: an opportunity to see scale models of all the California missions in the California Mission Museum right on the grounds. Of course, the more wine-minded will appreciate Fraser's take on this place: "What makes Cline so special is a visit with Cline's director of winemaking, Charlie Tsegeletos — a bundle of fire-rimmed passion for winemaking." 24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 940-4000, <a href="http://clinecellars.com" target="_blank">clinecellars.com</a>.
<strong>Sonoma-Cutrer:</strong> This winery is a "must-see" during harvest because it appeals to the mechanic in all of us. "The experience is that of seeing grape bins going through the refrigerated rooms like cars going through a car wash," Fraser said. "You'll also see grapes being sorted through a series of mechanical belts and rollers." It has a bit of a Rube Goldberg feel to it, and all the action happens in the middle of gorgeous chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards. 4401 Slusser Road, Windsor, 877-797-3489, <a href="http://sonomacutrer.com" target="_blank">sonomacutrer.com</a>.
<strong>Harvest Moon Estate and Winery:</strong> This winery falls into the category of "not to be missed," according to Fraser. Randy Pitts is the viticulturist and winemaker who is called "the winegrower" of Harvest Moon. "The experience of Randy leading you from the vineyard through the winery during harvest time is truly unforgettable," Fraser said. 2192 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 573-8711, <a href="http://harvestmoonwinery.com" target="_blank">harvestmoonwinery.com</a>.