Sonoma Wine Road: 40 years of tastings

Back in 1976, wine writer and publicist Millie Howie figured the best way to put Sonoma County on the map was to create one.

That year, Napa Valley burst onto the national scene by winning the legendary Paris Wine Tasting, and the artist Christo brought the spotlight to Bodega with his Running Fence project.

But the only way people found their way to Sonoma County’s wineries was by happenstance or word of mouth. Wineries interested in selling their products needed to find a way to get people up there and give them a reason to visit.

To increase their visibility, Howie and five area wineries banded together to raise their visibility, devising a map of their own they could send to potential wine buyers.

From that humble beginning grew Wine Road, a trade organization that began with a modest map of five wineries, that now has mushroomed to 200. It celebrated the 40th anniversary Thursday with a gala at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville.

Howie, who passed away in 2011, tapped these founding members: Geyser Peak Winery, Foppiano Vineyards and Simi Winery, all in Healdsburg, as well as Pedroncelli Winery and Trentadue Winery in Geyserville.

“All the wineries were within viewing distance of the Russian River,” said Jan Mettler of Boss Dog Marketing. “The Russian River has appeal, and it was a reason to bring people out here.”

“We now print about 400,000 maps a year,” said Beth Costa, Wine Road executive director. “I always think, wouldn’t Millie love to see that map in everyone’s hands and know that’s their guiding trip itinerary.”

The trade group’s story and the evolution of that map has been chronicled in “40 Years Along the Wine Road,” a documentary film written and directed by John Beck, which was to debut at Thursday’s event.

In the film, Jim Barausky of Quivira Winery tells the story of the Wine Road’s roots.

“It’s a little hard to imagine today in the age of iPhones and apps, but back when we started, Gerald Ford was president, gasoline was 59 cents a gallon and the first ‘Rocky’ was in all the movie houses,” Barausky said in the film.

The Wine Road was more like a dirt road.

“It was very much a farming community,” said Yvonne Kreck, co-vintner of Healdsburg’s Mill Creek Winery. “It wasn’t a tourist destination. It was a very different world back then.”

As Dave Rafanelli, co-owner of A. Rafanelli Winery in Healdsburg, puts it, “When people happened into the winery, it was an exciting day that they found you.”

But in 1976, the sibling rivalry between Sonoma County and Napa Valley became palpable.

“At the Judgment of Paris in 1976, California wines shocked the world by beating out the French wines in a blind tasting,” said Barausky. “It was a huge breakthrough for Americans, but it didn’t help that all the winners were Napa Valley wines.”

Sonoma County didn’t get much credit, even though 40 percent of the grapes in the winning Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay were grown in vineyards farmed by Healdsburg-based Bacigalupi Winery.

“Napa Valley, the ever imposing next-door neighbor, seemed to attract all the attention on a national level,” Barausky said.

When Sonoma County got its 15 minutes of national fame that year, it wasn’t for wine.

“It was for the bizarre spectacle of Christo’s Fence and the controversy it stirred up,” Barausky said.

None of it seemed to disturb Millie Howie’s muse. She had the idea to introduce a new format for wine tasters’ visits. They were invited into the wineries’ cellars for pours of unfinished wine, giving them access to the vintners and winemakers behind the bottling. That barrel tasting idea cemented Wine Road’s reputation.

“I remember the exact first one (barrel tasting,)” said Rafanelli. “I think we had five or six cars over a six-hour day. People would come to the door, and it was great. You’d take them back and thief out the barrel (siphon wine with a ‘thief’), and sit there and talk for as long as they wanted.”

But by the mid-2000s, the event had grown to two weekends and had become such a hit that 30,000 tasters, many of them millennials, tromped down Sonoma County’s back roads during Wine Road Barrel Tasting weekends.

Organizers soon realized that it had gotten out of control, and that sometimes there’s a downside to success. The barrel tasting had morphed from a marketing opportunity into something that more resembled “a fraternity party on wheels,” said Kreck, of Mill Creek Winery. Organizers responded by paring it back to about 12,000 tasters per weekend.

“We learned from the events we did this year how much guests appreciate an intimate tasting experience with smaller events, so that will be our plan going forward,” Costa said.

The Wine Road will continue with its three popular events: Winter Wineland in January, Barrel Tasting in March and the Wine & Food Affair in November.

“Folks come from around the country to attend, so we will of course continue those, but we’ll be adding small 20-person focused tastings to our lineup,” Costa said.

“We want people to enjoy wine and know the people behind the wine, a small group of 20 people with three, four or five winemakers sharing their wines, their winemaking philosophy. That makes for a much stronger connection to the winery.”

Costa said each year the maps are printed and distributed to people who use them to plan their wine country visits.

“Visitors come from around the world to visit Wine Road,” she said. “Forty years ago, we were not on anyone’s radar. When you’re in the moment, it is easy to forget how things have changed.”