wineries like shopping malls

by Stevie on November 5, 2009

A couple of weeks ago we went to the Healdsburg part of Sonoma County for wine tasting with friends. We stopped at Stryker Sonoma first, then Nalle; before enjoying our picnic lunch overlooking Lake Sonoma. It was a beautiful sunny day. The picnic spot couldn’t have been more perfect! The only flaw with the moment was that Christian and Aleks had forgotten to pack the olive bread. Alas!

WC crew at stunning Ferrari-Carano

WC crew at stunning Ferrari-Carano

I’d never been that far north in Dry Creek. There were lots more exciting-looking vineyards and wineries past David Coffaro than I’d ever realized. While chatting about everything over lunch and drinking two bottles of Stryker Sonoma zinfandel between the four of us (Aleks abstains), we decided that we’d try to hit one or two more on the drive back to San Francisco. By then we were a little loose from all of the wine. Our first stop was Sbragia. It sounds Italian to me which is always inviting.

Sbragia has one of those large tasting rooms with lots of merchandise other than wine. I sort of liked it. There were these cute sparkly pumpkins that caught my eye. They seemed so seasonally appropriate somehow. Suddenly we had to leave, even before trying any of the wine! What could be the matter?!? Back in the car one of our party shouted, “I felt like I was in a shopping mall in Minnesota!” As a result he refused to stay and would have nothing to do with the wine. The next place looked more promising.

Ferrari-Carano also seemed Italian-named (yeah!) and it was a lot more fancy-looking. There were sweeping gardens and a stunning tasting room in what appeared like a mansion. I really liked it. In fact I even impulsively (drunkenly more like it) bought a really cute, really overpriced ceramic wine bottle holder designed like a medieval tower. Very cool! It’s completely useless but I love it! Yet the same problem arose. Some of us refused to taste the wine because the place seemed too commercial; so we left.

Too commercial, too commercial… hmmm. Is that really possible? Aren’t these places, well, you know, businesses?

sparkly pumpkins on sale at Sbragia

sparkly pumpkins on sale at Sbragia

I have to admit that I’ve been to a fair number of wineries, in Napa especially, though in other locales too, where I felt like I was in Disneyland or starring in a James Bond feature film. I don’t ever think “shopping mall” though. Now that I’m reflecting on it more, it does seem that there’s a whole range of styles of winery, if you know what I mean. We’ve toured many mom-and-pop operations. Nalle, David Coffaro and A. Rafanelli immediately come to mind. These places are pretentiously small, intentionally ramshackle and seem to make a point of being almost anti-commercial. Sometimes I’m not even sure if they sell wine at all, let alone other products.

At the other end of the spectrum are those mammoth, showy places like Lambert Bridge, Darioush and Artesa; yes, and maybe Ferrari-Carano, too. At these wineries I often feel that I’ve entered an alternate Universe, travelled back through time or suddenly been identified as a long-lost relation and heir of some dearly departed multi-billionaire. In these fantasy wineries, you need to wade through endless examples of fine art, luxurious knickknacks, exquisite bottles of extra virgin olive oil, etc. to even find the wine. To me the experience can be thrilling. But I do see that it’s pretty artificial and could be a turn off for some. Most wineries fall somewhere between these two extremes.

homey Nalle tasting room

homey Nalle tasting room

I’m not that sure I’m totally a fan of the little, understated winery. Inevitably they’re staffed by the family that owns the place, or worse, their children. I vividly recall a long conversation at one such place where the daughter of the owner was clearly miserable to be stuck there and completely beholden to her parents for her financial existence. That must really suck. Poor thing! Her folks provided her salary, and owned her house in town, and it seems were more than a little intrusive into her private life. I didn’t have the sense that they liked her boyfriend very much. Just talking to her was a downer and it seemed way too work-related.

Usually the problem is not freebie psychotherapy sessions but the difficulty you have getting away from these miniscule outfits if it turns out that you don’t like the wine. How awkward to hear the whole family drama-rama about how much work they put into the place and then simply walk out empty-handed. That doesn’t happen at the luxury wineries.

I suppose the big showy places have their own problems. Sometimes I do get exhausted walking through endless gardens, vineyards, showrooms and palaces, all the while tripping over the fancy merchandise laid out everywhere. Simply tell me where to get my glass filled, please! Often, too, you’re treated like a complete wine hick, which is a bit insulting.

I wonder if these places make a lot of money on the various non-vinous items? Certainly I see many more product-laden wineries than the homespun variety. Or do we Americans simply feel more comfortable in an impersonal upscale store compared with the cozy intimacy of some stranger’s home/office?

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