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Barrel tasting brouhaha: Aficionados vs. partyers

After three decades, the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting is more popular than ever, but this year it revealed a simmering generational feud. The dispute pits aging Baby Boomers, who have long supported the event, against younger wine drinkers who taste with, shall we say, more gusto.

This month, the two-weekend event drew thousands of people who cruised the back roads of Sonoma County, with more than 100 wineries open for tastings. The atmosphere is generally festive, with food, wine and entertainment offered at most tasting rooms. But this year more people have complained about the party atmosphere at a few wineries and particularly around Healdsburg Plaza, the hub of several tasting rooms.

Many see it as a generational divide. Baby Boomers, who recall the event as a more serious tasting, have been increasingly put off by some Millennial wine lovers - ages 22 to 31 ? who see it as a festive day of wine drinking.

2009: Wine Road

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As Timothy Nordvedt of Healdsburg?s Bella Vineyards put it: ?I believe that we might all agree that Coors Light is the official beer of barrel tasting weekend as it was the most common can coming up to the winery from the parking lot in the hands of a 20-something taster. Many tasting glasses were offered for filling with a sudsy residue already present."

Beth Costa, executive director of Wine Road, the event?s sponsoring organization, said the problem drinking isn?t at the wineries, where tasting is limited, but typically is a result of serious drinking on buses and in limos between stops. ?It is a serious problem and one we will continue to try to solve.?

Costa expects the Millennials to be regulars at this event because of the affordable $30 ticket price and because it caters to the curious. ?It provides a relaxed setting to talk with winemakers and ask questions,? she said. "So it can be very educational, but not in the way a formal wine-tasting class would be conducted."

Barrel tasting is a sneak preview of wine that won't be available for another year or two. Many wineries sell so-called futures on their barrel samples, offering discounted prices to encourage purchases now.

While the event reeled in a younger crowd this year, organizers said they didn't set out to target a particular age group. However, this was the first year the Wine Road committed a larger percentage of its advertising to new online sources rather than print publications.

"The Millennials are so well connected that if they are interested in some particular event such as barrel tasting, they can tell thousands of their friends with one click of the mouse," Costa said. "They're the generation that is online. They Twitter, FaceBook and MySpace their weekend plans. It's all you read about these days, the Millennials. They're sociable, well-educated, open-minded, and influential."

Costa said the wine industry needs to embrace the younger enthusiasts. "They are the wine drinkers of tomorrow," she said. "They are welcome, but they need to be respectful and cognizant that they are sampling wine in order to make smart buying choices. It's not a free-for-all."


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