This past weekend was a very special weekend in Sonoma Valley. It was Heart of the Valley Barrel Tasting. Barrel Tasting weekend is the biggest single event in Sonoma Valley. The only other event that even comes close is the Holiday Open House right after Thanksgiving. The number of visitors in the valley triples and the normally calm and pleasant tasting rooms take on a more festive atmosphere.
What's the big deal? Well, for Sonoma Valley wine lovers this is a time to get be treated as a VIP without having to write for an internationally distributed wine magazine. All the participating wineries will make barrel samples of an upcoming release available for people to taste. On top of that, most wineries will sell futures for those wine and pair their existing wines food. Barrel Tasting weekend always happens over the third weekend in March every year and it is a very hectic, energetic weekend.
In Sonoma Valley there are two main associations of influence; The Sonoma Valley Vinters & Growers Association and The Heart of the Valley Association. The first association includes all the wineries and vineyards in Sonoma Valley and extends south of Sonoma Valley into the town of Sonoma and into the west end of Carneros. The Heart of the Valley Association is concentrated in Sonoma Valley proper starting at the north end of the town of Sonoma and extending northward to include the towns of Glen Ellen & Kenwood and ends at the south end of Santa Rosa. Sonoma Valley Barrel Tasting is hosted by the Heart of the Valley Association. All the wineries up and down Highway 12, the main and only road that runs the distance of the valley, join in the fun.
We at Loxton Cellars take a lot of pride in making sure this event is very well managed and that people that visit us have a very good experience. Our tasting room is also our barrel storage room. Normally, 10 people in our tasting room would be a lot of people, during barrel tasting we average more than 50 people in the same space. This often means a line forms out the front door for entry into our winery space. However, we are often told that it is worth the wait. People compliment us on our organization for the event and, the thing we like the most, is that comment on how much we seem to be enjoying what we are doing. I can honestly say we do. What makes it so enjoyable is that we have a lot of ‘friends of the winery' that volunteer to help. We only have 5 ‘real' employees at Loxton Cellars but on barrel tasting weekend we suddenly have triple that number. In a way, it is like a family reunion.
This year was a very special event for us. The Loxton Cellars tasting room opened five years ago on barrel tasting weekend. The owner and winemaker, Chris Loxton, made two special wines available for barrel tasting. A special syrah cuvee named Cuvee Ellen after his grandmother and Cabernet-Shiraz blend, called Grandfather's Cuvee, to celebrate the traditional Australian blend and the grapes grown on his family's vineyard in Australia. That vineyard has been in his family for more than 100 years. Both wines were from the 2007 vintage which many people in Sonoma are considering to be one of the best vintages in 20 years.
The 2007 Cuvee Ellen Syrah blend (multiple vineyards in Sonoma Valley) shows some uncommon power for a Sonoma Valley Syrah. The wine has nice rich black fruit aromas with a bit of smoke and the taste has strong blackberry and plum flavors. The acid was still high and tannins were bold but this is expected from a barrel sample but will mellow out by the release. This wine will be bottled soon and will be released in the next six months and, based on what I tasted, this wine will age gracefully for the next five to eight years easily. The cabernet-shiraz blend was simply outstanding. This is a wine that has incredible balance and power. We will keep this one in barrel for another 6 months (total will be 18), we'll bottle it and then keep it in bottle for at least another 10 months in bottle before release it. Again, based on what I tasted, this wine will age nicely for the next 10 years.
Barrel Tasting weekend can be hectic, it can be very, very busy but there is a lot of value to it for both the producers in and consumers. The producers get to show case their wines, generate excitement around new releases, generate revenue through the sales of futures and create a lot of new customers. For the customers, they get access to wineries and wines that might not be normally be available. There is opportunity to taste the wines with food as many winemakers intend but the real draw is the wine from the barrel. Many people will purchase futures based on the barrel samples. If you can handle the crowds, it is well worth doing. Join in Sonoma Valley for Barrel Tasting next year … mark your calendars now, it will be March 20th and 21st 2010.
John Andrews is a software product manager during the week and is a professional Tasting Room staffer at Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen, CA on the weekends.