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Wine Road Barrel Tasting in full swing across Sonoma County

The Wine Road Barrel Tasting started Friday and features 131 participating wineries. Up to 16,000 visitors are expected to take part in the festivities over this weekend and next.|

Thousands of wine enthusiasts flocked to Sonoma County tasting rooms and wineries Saturday for the opening weekend of the Wine Road Barrel Tasting event, an annual rite that draws serious aficionados looking to spend hundreds of dollars to younger newbies attracted to a good time in the sun.

The two-weekend countywide affair, which started Friday and features 131 participating wineries, is estimated to bring in ?$3 million in wine sales, making for one of the best in-person sales periods for local wineries, said Beth Costa, executive director of the Wine Road, the event organizer. Up to 16,000 visitors are expected to take part in the festivities over this weekend and next. About a third of attendees come from out of state.

Amid the crush of tasting traffic, it takes a lot for vintners to capture attention. A typical tasting session involves sampling wine in barrels that are likely not to be bottled for another year at the earliest. Such small-lot barrels can be purchased as “futures,” often at a 25 percent discount. Most are packaged in a six- or 12-bottle set.

In an attempt to stand out from other wineries, Portalupi Wines in downtown Healdsburg gave customers the opportunity to bid on an entire barrel of barbera, a red Italian variety, made from 2014 Shake Ridge grapes and starting at $11,000. A barbera barrel from 2014 Pauli Ranch grapes started at $8,500. There were no takers for either as of Saturday afternoon.

Owner Jane Portalupi noted the wines in each barrel have been aging for four months, and a purchase would allow the customer to participate in the winemaking process with her husband, Tim Borges.

“They can actually partner with us all the way through now until bottling,” Portalupi said. “We are just having fun with it.”

Economic activity generated by the barrel tasting event extends to other businesses as well, as evidenced by all the limousines and luxury mini-buses that were shuttling attendees who paid $60 for a weekend ticket through the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. Delicatessens also likely saw a jump in business as organizers urged customers to bring lunch, with some wineries not serving food.

Barrel tasting typically draws a diverse crowd of all ages, but most of the attendees on Saturday appeared to be millennials, typically those in their 20s or early to mid 30s.

That is good news for the industry as it aggressively courts a younger demographic that faces a much more diverse array of choices for alcoholic beverages, including craft beer, hard cider and a variety of distilled spirits.

According to the Wine Market Council trade group, 29 percent of the total wine drinking population consists of millennials (up to age 37), 18 percent are ages 38 to 49 and 41 percent are baby boomers, with those born in 1945 or earlier making up 12 percent.

In some encouraging news for vintners, the council found that high-frequency millennial drinkers consumed more wine in 2014 than the previous year compared to other demographic groups.

Among the young tasters Saturday was Rebecca Manning, 22, of San Francisco, who said she enjoyed going out to the county’s wineries and tasting rooms, an experience she didn’t have growing up in Southern California.

“It’s definitely more of a Northern California thing,” Manning said as she sampled wine at Portalupi.

She added that the experience of trekking to Wine Country makes a wine tasting much more different than going out to a brewpub or a trying a new cocktail.

“I think it’s a different atmosphere probably, and like you have to plan it,” Manning said. “You have to make a trip out here and make sure you have a ride home.”

The celebration aspect was key for Alessandra Walker, 22, who came up with a group from San Francisco for a birthday outing for a friend’s brother.

“It’s for the wine and the celebration,” said Walker.

While the wineries appreciate the younger customers, they have also been on guard to ensure the event remains more a mild-?mannered celebration of wine than a raucous party. That is especially true as Sonoma County vintners have encountered increasing public blowback over the expansion of wineries and tasting rooms doubling as event centers.

And many Sonoma County vintners are keeping a watchful eye on Napa County, where officials are holding a special meeting on Tuesday to address winery development.

In an effort to avoid trouble, the Barrel Tasting organizers offer discounted tickets to designated drivers and encourage attendees to use chartered transportation given that some will get tipsy.

The CHP reported more traffic complaints around certain areas of the tasting, such as Westside Road, but no accidents or above-average number of DUI arrests.

At Armida Winery in the Dry Creek Valley, owners Bruce and Steve Cousins had five people to assist in parking the cars, limousines and mini-buses that drove up to its estate and vineyards, where younger customers - the men in jeans and women in summer dresses - played bocce ball and picnicked out on the deck under sunny skies, with temperatures in the high 70s.

“They are here more for the fun aspect,” said Bruce Cousins. “We designate areas that are especially for them.”

And to keep his more serious, longtime wine future buyers happy, Cousins said, “we have a way to what I call ‘thin the herd.’

“We want them to have a more personal experience,” he said, “a more private experience for them, so they feel like they are not getting run over.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or ?bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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