It’s barrel-tasting season in Sonoma County

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Alex Simenstad’s friends tell him that the Wine Road Barrel Tasting event is “quite the fiesta.”

The 25-year-old, wearing mirrored sunglasses, said he’s planning to go to the event, which begins Friday.

“It’s good to let loose every once in a while,” he explained with a laugh. “But responsibly. What’s better than drinking wine with good company while enjoying the beautiful Wine Country?”

The 37th annual barrel tasting event will unfold over two consecutive weekends, March 6-8 and March 13-15, with 100-plus wineries pouring. Organizers expect to host a total of 15,000 tasters, with each weekend bringing about 7,500 people. Wineries like Ferrari-Carano Vineyards in Healdsburg and David Caffaro Estate Vineyard in Geyserville will be among the wineries opening their cellar doors.

Simenstad, a tasting room staffer with Vine Cliff Winery in Napa, worked until recently at Beau Wine Tours in Sonoma, which gave him a close-up view of Wine Road’s barrel tasting event. He was booking buses for fellow millennials, the offspring of baby boomers, ages 21 to 35.

He booked two executive coaches that seat 23 people, as well as two smaller vehicles that seat 12. Simenstad said these people headed to the barrel tasting are in the 25- to 30-year-old range, and some have referred to the event as a party.

Last year there were no reports of problematic “power wine-tasting,” as one limousine driver coined it, but the event continues to draw distinct crowds. One type of attendee is the millennial, who has made the event a fun spring rite of passage. Another is the serious wine buyer, eager for the chance to reserve favorite wines. The third is the local taster who has learned how to sidestep crowds altogether by focusing on less high-profile wineries or a Friday itinerary.

By being proactive, organizers and wineries are striving to host these distinct tasters without incident.

“We clearly have a zero tolerance policy for anyone who thinks this is a party,” said Beth Costa, executive director of the Wine Road, the trade organization hosting the event. “Intoxicated guests are turned away. … Like everyday life, folks need to take personal responsibility for their actions.”

For all Wine Road events, Costa hires extra California Highway Patrol officers, as well as a private security company for downtown Healdsburg.

Costa has a foolproof plan for customizing the event. “If you were to get off the beaten track to some of these smaller producers, you may very well be the only tasters there,” she explained. “Many smaller wineries are thrilled if they see 50 to 60 people in a day during barrel tasting. Those on a main street may see 1,000 people a day. With a bit of effort and planning, you can make the event what you want it to be. It can be a lively tasting with lots of others tasters to visit with, or an intimate experience where you can really chat with winemakers and learn about their wines.”

The wine buyer: Ed Estes Jr.

Ed Estes Jr. lives in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains at an altitude of 6,000 feet. He says he has a good environment for keeping his wine collection properly cool.

The real estate lawyer has come to this event at least 10 to 15 times in the past. Estes, 56, likes to buy wine from Sonoma County with some college friends.

Estes buys futures, which means he reserves allotments of wine from the barrel that won’t be available until 12 to 18 months after the event.

“Futures are less expensive,” Estes said. “Sometimes the wines come out really good. Sometimes not so good. It’s the risk you take.”

Last year, he spent under $500 for a couple of cases. This year, he said, he has no spending limit.

Estes said he likes the adventure of tasting wine out of the barrel.

“I like to seek out wines you can’t get elsewhere,” he said. “Sometimes wineries will bring out library wines that are 10 to 15 years old.”

Estes considers the event a treasure hunt of sorts.

“Last year a winery might have had an outstanding zinfandel,” he explained. “This year it may have missed the mark. A smaller winery may knock your socks off one year, and the next, not do so well. But it all adds to the excitement.”

Two wineries Estes wants to visit during barrel tasting are:

— Ridge Vineyards, www.ridgewines.com, 650 Lytton Springs Road, Healdsburg.

— Quivira Vineyards & Winery, www.quivirawine.com, 4900 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg.

The local: John Theobald

John Theobald, who lives in Calistoga, has been coming to the Wine Road Barrel Tasting event since 1989.

Theobald is a regular with a ritual. Every year, a group of his friends meets on Friday to sidestep the crowds. There are seven or eight who go tasting on Friday, and Theobald said about four or five of the group never venture out on Saturday or Sunday.

“Barrel tasting on Friday is more deliberately paced,” he said. “It’s a chance to talk to old friends in a quieter, less noisy event. It’s pretty much a hustle-bustle experience on Saturday and Sunday.”

Theobald, 57, teaches News, Policy and Practices, a journalism class at UC Davis. He lived in Cloverdale in the late 1980s before moving to Calistoga.

“The Friday approach is less heavily trafficked,” Theobald said. “We all remember barrel tasting when it was a much smaller group of people.”

Two wineries Theobald wants to visit during barrel tasting are:

— Dashe Cellars, www.dashecellars.com, 4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg.

— Joseph Swan Vineyards, www.swanwinery.com, 2916 Laguna Road, Forestville.

The millennial: Alex Simenstad

Alex Simenstad of Santa Rosa laughed when asked what kind of budget he had to purchase wine at the event. His laugh was deep and hearty, one that couldn’t be reined in.

“Maybe I could buy a bottle or two for memories, but I’m not looking for cases because we millennials have bills,” Simenstad said. “We have to pay for rent. We have car payments and our cellphone bill. It adds up. Wine isn’t cheap.”

Simenstad said millennials are more interested in entertainment than purchasing wine.

He hopes to go to wineries that are the most “festive” — ones that have a band, or great food, or some other point of intrigue.

Two wineries Simenstad wants to visit during barrel tasting are:

— Armida Winery, www.armida.com, 2201 Westside Road, Healdsburg.

— Kokomo Winery, www.kokomowines.com, 4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg.

Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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