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Mar 7, 2012 02:18 PM

Barrel tasting - advice/info I should know?

My husband and I are going to Healdsburg, CA for the weekend. We've been there and love it, and just learned that it is a barrel tasting weekend. I've never done this.

Is there anything we should keep in mind in tasting/ buying?
Anything else I should know?

We feel pretty lucky, but I'm not sure what we're in for, except for crowds...!

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  1. MAJOR crowds and apparently lots of over-imbibers this year.

    This is a really great experience, although the feedback is that it is REALLY crowded and the traffic is difficult. Most of the wineries are on very narrow country roads (this is vineyard country) so patience will be needed.

    One word of caution........ don't get caught up too much in the idea that buying wine at wineries is automatically something great. If the wine you taste is available in the general retail marketplace you will usually be able to buy it cheaper at home. Hold your winery buys to wines that are limited production or not distributed to retail (the tasting room staff should be able to tell you what's exclusive or limited).

    If you've never done this before.............. stay hydrated and eat as you go (bring something with you). There are a LOT of wineries on that trail. ;o]

    ENJOY!!!!! and stay safe!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Midlife

      I agree completely with Midlife about buying wine at wineries. However, I would add that sometimes one can get close-outs on wine at the wineries that are great bargains. Some years ago at Mazzocco Winery on Lytton Springs Road, Healdsburg I got a close-out case of 2001 Zinfandel for $8 something a bottle. I only have one bottle left, but every one has been better than the last. The first one was delicious, that’s why I bought a case.

      1. re: wally

        Wow... I'm both excited and nervous! One of the reasons we love Healdsburg (aside from the wine) is that it usually isn't crowded! I'm excited. I better spit - or I won't get far! Thank you!

        1. re: rln

          February, and early March, are usually great times to visit Napa and Sonoma, as there ARE fewer folk about. If one gets lucky, and it's a cool, foggy, rainy day, there might be few, if any, others there. Savor that time with the workers, and their wines. Ask plenty of questions (unless the room is overflowing), and listen carefully. Take plenty of mental notes, and see if what they projected, came to be, upon later release.


          1. re: Bill Hunt

            Bill, Barrel Tasting weekends are a whole other thing. The crowds are huge and, with deference to marialorraine, much of what people taste is already released wines in the tasting rooms. Real barrel tasting is only a part of what goes on. Just sayin'.

            1. re: Midlife

              Just read in today's Santa Rosa Press Democrat:
              "Barrel Tasting revelers prompt CHP calls"

              According to the article, one winemaker actually lost business because serious buyers
              could not purchase wine because of the masses of revelers.

              It's a young crowd at this event, 21 to 30 age bracket, the article says.

              1. re: maria lorraine

                That's what I was referring to in my post. ;o] Read that article this morning.

                1. re: Midlife

                  Oh, this is something beyond what I know. Sounds like Mardi Gras with wine barrels included. I just learned something.



                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      I am sorry, but am at a loss, as to what you are alluding to.

                      I have done many "barrel tastings," and around most of the CA wine producing regions. All of MY experiences have been very small groups, and with refined tasters.

                      What am I missing here?


                    2. re: Bill Hunt

                      Bill, this characterization is getting out of hand and I'm sorry I even got into this. These are isolated incidents that should not deter people from enjoying wine tasting in general or these larger events. I doubt that there's a significant wine region that does not see its share of this kind of thing. But it does seem to be a phenomenon that comes with some of the territory, especially when large groups of people are driven around so they don't have to drive.

                      In the past, wineries in SoCal's Temecula Valley have warned limo and tour companies that they will not be allowed on the property if they don't self-police the sobriety of their passengers. Temecula is a much smaller area, with maybe 50 wineries at most, so the presence of a few stretch limos of revelers likely has a greater impact.

                      1. re: Midlife


                        It seems that there are several "levels" of "barrel tastings," and I have only experienced one level - the personal level.

                        You and Ms. Wong seem to be talking about something, that I have never experienced, and somehow, I do not think that I wish to do so.

                        When I have been invited to "barrel tastings," it has been me, a very small group of select folk, and usually the winemaker. We have experienced some great wines, very early in their life.

                        What I am picking up, there ARE different experiences, and maybe I have not been part of some/many?

                        From the general descriptions, I am glad, that I have not.


                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          Bill, "From the general descriptions, I am glad, that I have not." is what Melanie is addressing I think. She is very involved with wineries in California and (though I really shouldn't speak for her) is concerned about a negative image connotation in this.

                          I have no doubt that you, personally, would not be much interested in doing barrel tasting with large groups of people, but this is very good exposure for wineries. It also allows people to experience an aspect of tasting that many would not otherwise think to request or be offered. It's part of the wineries' marketing..... plain and simple.

                          I must include the fact that, for me, the drawback of these events is that I (like you) prefer to barrel taste in a situation where it's easier to ask questions and experience more than might be possible during a large group event. But the experience is a real treat for most any wine lover.

                          This discussion is purely about the extent to which there are disruptive influences at these things. As I said above, I do regret expanding this duscussion. The disruption is relatively mild and should not influence anyone's decision to participate.

                          It is, however, much more fun to have Dave Rafanelli let you stick your finger into a fermenting tank to taste really new Zinfandel. ;o]]]

                          1. re: Midlife

                            I will not put down such events, as I can see where they would supplement other marketing. They would just not be for me. However, I have learned something here, as I did not realize that there was a big focus on barrel tastings, and especially for the masses. Mine have always been very intimate, and have been very enjoyable to us.

                            I also feel that tasting wines in a tasting room, with about 2 buses of tourists, is not my thing. That is why I like to do most of mine, in February, and especially if it's raining and cold - I get individual treatment, and have time to just talk and taste. For me, there is little, that is more fun.

                            I used to attend many ZAP events, until the crowds grew to be mobs, around every table. Suddenly, one could not have a conversation with Robert Biale, or Larry Turley, as there were now 200 people fighting to get to the front of the line. I now have my conversations in more intimate events, which I greatly prefer.

                            No, I was just unaware of this marketing function, so greatly appreciate getting the info from you and Ms. Wong.

                            I'll keep reading and learning, as this is all new to me.



                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Do take a look at the many comments on that piece for other points of view. I'm with those who are offended by the repeated bashing of young wine consumers.

                    That article is basically a rework of this one by the same author from two years ago.

                    Here's a piece by a different reporter who was out visiting wineries on Saturday with a photographer on Saturday and interviewing vintners and customers (including a 28-year-old attorney) herself.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Melanie, since I brought it up in the first place.....................I don't think those of us that mentioned the reports of crowds and 'embibers' were "bashing" young wine drinkers. That's kindof harsh. The OP wanted to know what she would be "in for".

                      Is it you opinion that the reports were exaggerated and/or not abnormal for the event? Or somehow untrue? I haven't been in a few years but it is no huge surprise to hear that this might be on the rise. It happens.

                      I fully understand that the wineries need support, not negative publicity, but this is something of a private forum........... or am I wrong about that? If you read the entire thread, the 'problem' issue is only a small part.

                      1. re: Midlife

                        My post was in reply to marialorraine's and refers to the youth-bashing Press Democrat article and the comments taking the author to task posted in the PD. Sorry if that was confusing to you.

                        I wouldn't say the reports are exaggerated and I don't doubt that those reported incidents are true but I can offer a bit of perspective. When you have an event that attracts 20,000 people, a dozen incidents is a very low number. They're not representative of the event in totality.

                        While some wineries may see over 1000 visitors in one day (if they allow large groups to visit), the majority of the 144 wineries see fewer than 100 in a day during barrel tasting. So, as a consumer, select carefully where you decide to go if you're trying to avoid crowds and take the path less chosen.

                        As far as the winery who said that crowds kept serious buyers away, well, maybe it should learn to manage the number of visitors on the property and staff up for the big event. The winery that I helped these past two weekends does not allow buses, limos or groups larger than 8 for barrel tasting or for normal tasting hours. A friend who is an attorney was traffic director, in charge of monitoring the parking lot and was posted at the entrance to the driveway only letting in the number that could be accommodated at any moment for tasting. He sent others on their way at busy times to avoid clogging the roads. Interestingly, he had a chance to chat with a couple limo drivers, those whose customers decided to hike in from the road and leave the limo behind. One driver said that his young 20-something charges had already bought $13K of wine in one day. Another seemed worried about whether he'd get a tip, mentioning that his young group had not bought any wine yet. So it's really all over the board in terms of whether younger consumers are buyers or not.

                        Regarding calling in CHP to deal with a rowdy group, that relieves wineries from having to be the "bad guy" and that's why the association pays for additional patrols. Some wineries require their staff to write up a full report of anything that goes beyond a service challenge in case there are downstream problems, and it's a whole lot easier to put in a call to have the CHP assist.

                        My volunteer job was wine education, that's what we feel is at the heart of the barrel tasting weekend. I talked to a couple thousand tasters these two weekends, and I personally did not need to refuse service to anyone. Yes, I observed a few who had imbibed too much who could have been problems, but they were hanging back with their group of friends and didn't ask me for tastes.

                        I didn't post to promote wineries. I just wanted to highlight that the article in the PD referenced by you and maria lorraine doesn't really capture the event and seemed like a lazy retread to me. As far as this being something of a private forum, you should be aware that that anything posted here is far from private. The site is fully indexed on google and this thread pops up readily if you search for barrel tasting advice.

                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                          Melanie, thanks so much for adding the much needed perspective. I think what I find most appalling is the just another feature in a long line of lazy journalism.



                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            It's always a great pleasure to see a post by Melanie on the Wine Board, and this real-time, on-the-scene report is no exception. Thanks for shifting the focus.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              What I'm really hoping is that we'll hear from "rln" and her finds.

              2. re: wally

                ...and once again, SPIT!

                and carry along the largest bottle of water you can find for each of you. And DRINK IT! Staying well hydrated is the best way to prevent getting sick/drunk/etc.

              3. Barrel-tasting requires a different skill-set than wine-tasting. The wines will be harsher, less smooth, less beguiling, as a rule.

                Since the wine is in a raw, unresolved state, you will have to disregard certain dominant flavors, especially the oak, and focus instead on subtle flavors in the wine. In the case of unresolved oak (burning, harshness, smokiness, puckeriness, etc.), the trick, at least for me, is to evaluate the quality of fruit and flavors "underneath" the oak, or peeking through the oak.Over time, the dominant oak and other harsh flavors will subside, and the fruit will come forward in a kind of oeno do-si-do. Other spicy flavors and aromas that lend complexity will also emerge that weren't there when the wine was young.

                Figuring out what the wine will taste like when the oak resolves -- extrapolating, as it were -- or ignoring the dominant flavors in order to taste more subtle flavors underneath them takes some focus and attention. And, you may be delighted to know that this is the way winemakers taste wine all the time, evaluating which flavors are emerging and which are subsiding in that dance of aging. BTW, lately I've come across more and more barrel samples that resemble the finished wine, but I wouldn't say that's the norm at all.

                Yes, talk to the winemaker, if you can. Ask him/her about that dance of flavors -- what will come forward, what will subside. Usually, barrel tastings have a few vintages of the finished wine so that you can taste how the wine evolved over time. Have fun.

                More here in this thread from 2009 on the Wine Board titled "Barrel Tasting" :

                1. Barrel tastings can be great fun, and especially if its a wine, with which one has some familiarity, and can then reflect upon that tasting, upon release.

                  Knowing that the wine is in transition, and is very likely going to change, can provide a bit of a "side note." It takes a very studied palate to be able to mentally translate things from the barrel to the delivered bottle, but then my role has never been to really predict. Now, I have had some lovely conversations with various winemakers, but always comment on what I am experiencing at that moment, and let them fill me in on how things are likely to change. OTOH, many have spent hours (and many sips) discussing what I was getting at that point in time, and fairly early in an evolution. I will never know how helpful I might have been, but it WAS great fun. In many cases, I have been able to then taste the released wine, and judge for myself.



                  1. Here's my post on the SF Bay Area board with some tips for navigating Wine Road barrel tasting weekend.

                    Attendance is down this year, as the ticket price went up and also general economic conditions. This is a good year to go as the crowds last weekend were less than expected with not that many drop-ins. Probably not much different this coming weekend.