Sebastopol wine bar gives consumers a regional tasting experience

The North Coast wine tasting experience has changed a great deal since the old days of an upturned barrel and free pours.

They have gotten more varied and unique. There’s everything from blind tastings and blending classes to sipping favorite vintages in wine caves. Along with variety, the cost also has increased to as much as $50 per person at many wineries.

There are extra elaborate tasting experiences, too, such as the sparkling suite at Domaine Carneros where for $500 a couple, you can could look out your own private château balcony to lush vineyards while sampling sparkling wines and pinot noirs along with caviar and charcuterie. The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily suspended indoor tastings.

This viticultural arms race, however, has not translated into more daily visitors for local wineries. That’s because in Sonoma County alone there are about 300 wine tasting rooms and more consumers now prefer to visit fewer wineries while on vacation.

“Today, the consumer is redefining what a visit to Wine Country is all about,” Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank, wrote as part of the bank’s annual survey of regional tasting room visits.

Amid this changing marketplace, some local entrepreneurs recently opened the Region wine bar in Sebastopol’s Barlow outdoor eating, drinking and shopping mecca. Their new venture takes its inspiration more from the accessibility and affordability of area craft brewpubs to try to lure a new generation of wine drinkers.

“If you don’t change you may not exist,” said Kerry Thedorf, a co-founder of Region along with partner Johan Eide. The partners, along with two other silent investors, launched the enterprise for less than $1 million.

The change can be seen immediately when customers show up at Region. They sign in digitally to get a wine pour card to link to their credit cards. To start tasting, they enter a room where they can select up to 50 different wines from small producers across Sonoma County. Consumers access the wines via self-serve stations that use argon gas to preserve them.

A Region employee can help guide people toward wines that may pique their interest and their palate. The process allows customers to explore different wine regions within the county, from Zo Wines sauvignon blanc from the Dry Creek Valley to a grenache from the Sonoma Coast made by Thirty-Seven Wines. The card also allows them to sample a wide array of wines inexpensively.

Region has 1-ounce pours for less than $2. There are also 2.5-ounce and 5-ounce pours available. The biggest pours can range from $15 to $30 for the most expensive cabernet sauvignon. A vast sampling of different wines can be tasted for under $25. And the experience comes with a view from an outdoor patio, and without pressure to buy wine bottles.

The partners say the goal is to put the customer in charge of tasting wines they prefer among a range of small purveyors, most of whom they likely had not known about before entering the wine bar. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional winery tasting room, in which after sampling wines an employee wants to sign up customers for the wine club.

Thedorf, who has worked in marketing at Duckhorn Wine Co. in Napa and Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards in Geyserville, said the business practices of many winery tasting room operations are “like three to five years behind the times.”

That could partly explain why the number of wine tasting room visitors has been on the decline. Last year, average monthly visitors to a Sonoma County winery were 1,228, compared with 1,098 in 2015, according to the most recent Silicon Valley Bank survey. In Napa County, visitors dropped from 1,644 to 1,372 during the same period.

Thedorf likened the current tasting room model to a timeshare rental pitch, in which the customer feels compelled to sign up for the wine club but likely will drop out later.

“You made the destination and feel obligated ... like I have to buy a bottle,” said Eide, who also operates a patent law practice in Windsor.

Region has bottles of wine on sale for customers who want to take home favorites, and their purchases will get them on the email list for those wineries. However, Eide and Thedorf are aiming for the wine tasting experience to be less intimidating with a focus on discovery.

For example, Eide noted a couple from Cupertino recently visited and were captivated by AldenAlli, the winery formed by Dan Kosta, and bought six bottles of the wines after the tastings. Kosta achieved success by founding the cult pinot noir winery Kosta Browne in Sebastopol. Now after selling his stake in that winery, he has focused on a much smaller venture far less known to consumers.

There is also an incentive at Region for the 25 participating boutique wineries. Outside of Three Sticks Winery of Sonoma, most are under the radar. The participating wineries pay a monthly fee to Region, which also gets a commission on each sale.

Most of the small wineries would not be able to afford a lease and hire employees to sell their wines at a high-traffic location such as the Barlow, home to eateries, breweries, art galleries and shops.

Take for example Young Hagen winery. It is a two-person outfit between winemaker Tim Beranek, who also works at other Napa Valley wineries, and his wife Ali, who works full time at Redwood Credit Union. Young Hagen produces 300 to 400 wine cases a year and sells directly to consumers through digital channels.

“From us running our own little brand, we don’t really have access to a tasting room presence,” Tim Beranek said.

Region also provides each boutique winery two weeks a year to host tastings in its lounge. That gives winemakers a place to meet clients and new customers to discuss in detail their vintages and grape sourcing.

Beranek, who just hosted tastings at Region, said he was grateful for his wines to be featured at the new wine bar among vintages from notable vintners such as Dan Kosta and Fred Scherrer of Scherrer Winery.

Scherrer, who produced his first vintage in 1991 and makes about 5,000 cases annually, noted that the paradigm for discovering new wine has changed in the last decade as critics such as Robert Parker hold much less sway over making or breaking a wine brand in an era when social media reviews carry a lot more weight. He also can’t rely on wholesalers to retail outlets who are much more concerned with larger brands that help meet their own distributor sales goals.

Also, Region features wineries that are independent, something Scherrer said is important as smaller brands are continually being acquired by big wine companies such as E. & J. Gallo Winery and Jackson Family Wines.

“I think it’s great more people are making really good wine and that is made by intelligent people that are more independent-minded,” Scherrer said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell

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