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Wine Road Barrel tasting: Crowds down, civility up

Santa Rosa-area residents Danielle Buckman, left and Jen Torrone, right, joined with friends Saturday to celebrate a birthday at Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves during the first day of the 35th Annual Barrel Tasting in northern Sonoma County.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 7:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 7:14 p.m.

DeLoach Vineyards was prepared Saturday for the opening weekend of the 35th annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting event.

The smell of Chicago-style hot dogs wafted across the entrance to the Olivet Road facility. Inside the cellar, Boston's “More than a Feeling” blasted on a stereo as about a dozen imbibers enjoyed wines directly from barrels.

The only thing missing?

Hordes of inebriated customers.

“I didn't have any extremely rude, obnoxious, drunk people,” Ellen Springwater, the winery's tasting room manager, said with relief at 3:30 p.m., a half-hour before the winery closed for the day.

It's too early to say whether the barrel event, which occurs on back-to-back weekends the first part of this month, has shed its rowdy ways. But the early returns Saturday were positive.

“We haven't been overwhelmed at all,” said John Balletto, who owns a winery on Occidental Road.

Last year's event, which drew an estimated 20,000 people to wineries in the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys, generated complaints about public drunkenness.

Beth Costa, the event's executive director, said changes were made this year in an attempt to curtail some of the problems.

The strategy included raising at-the-door ticket prices by 25 percent — to $50 — and banning buses that carry more than 24 riders.

Costa said about 13,000 tickets were sold in advance. She expected an additional 2,000 to be sold at the door. That would represent about 5,000 fewer people than last year.

About half of the 123 wineries participating this year also have banned limousines and groups with more than eight people.

Costa on Saturday said she had not heard a complaint from participating wineries. “I really hope it ends up a perfect event, with a lot of wine sales. I hope people make connections with winemakers,” she said.

Wineries in the Healdsburg area seemed to have more problems last year with inebriated event-goers, in particular young imbibers who preferred gulping wine to sampling it.

Saturday in southern Russian River valley, however, the mood was groovy at Graton Ridge Cellars, where staff wore tie-dye shirts and visitors sampled “munchies” that included popcorn and chips.

A group of young people played bocce ball beneath overcast skies.

“It's nice not to have long lines,” said Bob Gambino, a tax consultant from San Rafael.

Another member of the entourage, Shaun Horrigan of San Francisco, wore a green bracelet for designated drivers. Horrigan said he appreciated that wineries were giving out juices and coffee for those who weren't imbibing.

Costa said the nonprofit that operates the event spent $13,000 on beverages just for designated drivers. She declined to provide the event's overall budget.

The real allure is the opportunity to sample unfinished wines still in the barrel, in most cases months before they're bottled and even longer before they are released. Most wineries also sell “futures,” allowing tasters to stake a claim to wines they can pick up later, often at discounted prices.

On the patio at Balletto Winery, Roger and Janet Von Holt of Bloomington, Ind., enjoyed a glass of pinot noir and the relaxing sounds of a water fountain. The couple said they have been coming to the barrel event since about 1990.

“A lot of people come out here to drink and have a good time. We're serious. We're buyers,” Roger Von Holt said.

John Balletto said the winery had fewer visitors on Saturday than on the Saturday of opening weekend last year. But he said sales were up 20 percent with three hours left before the winery closed for the day.

“It's been a great event so far,” he said.

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