Swirl. Smell. Sip. Wine tasting seems straightforward, but at haughty tasting rooms filled with loud crowds and distracted staff, the process hovers between intimidating and annoying. At least it had been for me until a trip to Healdsburg gave me a crash course in just how enjoyable and educational wine tasting can be.
The best part of this syllabus? The homework is fun. (Extra credit points for using the term "corked" correctly at your next dinner party.)
Best Spot to Study Wine History
I began with a history lesson at Trattore Farms where owner Tim Bucher, who grew up in the Dry Creek Valley, nurtures vines and olive trees, a few of which are over 200 years old, on a striking 40-acre swath of land that captures the essence of the valley’s farming roots. In the wide-open tasting room, I chased robust reds with a sampling of some dozen olive oils and marveled at the tenacity of man and nature.
Fee: $20 for the Estate Menu, waived with purchase of one or more bottles of wine or olive oil.
Required Drinking: The Tractor Red Rhone Blend ($28), described by tasting room host Nancy Freitas as “pasta, pizza, burger wine,” because you’ll enjoy this with everything.
Best Winery for Behind-the-Scenes Science
J Vineyards & Winery's facility tour, where steel equipment gleamed as spotless as the glass in my hand, offered a lesson in the scientifically derived nuances required of the winery’s signature sparkling wines. As the delicate bubbles played on my palate, I got my first taste of the controlled variables behind this effervescent art form.
Fees: $40 for tour/tasting. Reservations encouraged.
Required Drinking: J Brut Rose ($65), a complicated process distilled into an easy-to-drink bottle.
Best Place for a Lesson in Culinary Arts
At Williamson Wines, seated food pairings highlight subtle changes produced with each bite and every sip. I was only too happy to set aside the plain crackers I’d been munching in favor of flavorful dishes like a tender skirt steak roulade bathed in gorgonzola butter enhanced by the complex flavors of the “Seduce” Cabernet. The owner’s romance-themed naming convention gives a wink to the perfect union of a delicious wine and the right dish.
Fee: Tastings begin at $15.
Required Drinking: The "Ravish" Melange ($125), a blend of Bordeaux varietals and an ideal complement to American comfort foods.