Dunne on Wine

Winery tasting rooms are everywhere in Folsom. Why not in Sacramento?

Lori Durrant, tasting-room manager for D’Artagnan Vineyards & Winery, behind the counter, assisting a guest, in the Folsom winery tasting room shared by Due Ragazze Vineyards.
Lori Durrant, tasting-room manager for D’Artagnan Vineyards & Winery, behind the counter, assisting a guest, in the Folsom winery tasting room shared by Due Ragazze Vineyards.

Folsom’s general plan calls for the city to position itself as “Gateway to the Foothill Wine Region.” It says nothing of Folsom aspiring to be “Gateway to the Pacific Northwest Wine Region.”

Nevertheless, this spring Willamette Valley Vineyards, based in Turner, Ore., outside of Salem, is to open a satellite tasting room in Folsom, about 550 miles south. A collaboration of brothers Jerry Bernau, a Folsom developer, and Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, Willamette Wineworks will be Folsom’s most ambitious winery tasting room, joining about nine others that have popped up across the community.

In addition to tastings, principals talk of consumer blending sessions and food-and-wine pairings with the restaurant that is to share the structure, Scott’s Seafood. Willamette Wineworks is to occupy the second floor of a red-brick building rising on the site of an old railroad roundhouse at the foot of Sutter Street in the city’s historic district.

Willamette Valley Vineyards isn’t out to challenge the aspirations of the Sierra foothill wine trade, but to help Folsom fulfill its goal to be a destination for visitors to explore wines as well as to browse antiques shops, art galleries and specialty cafes.

“Wineries succeed in clusters,” says Christine Clair, winery director for Willamette Valley Vineyards. Besides, Willamette Wineworks also is to market wines under a second brand, Natoma, in recognition of the historic Natoma Vineyard Co., which in the late 1800s included a 2,000-acre vineyard in the Folsom area, reputedly the largest in the world for that time, subsequently dug up by prospectors dredging for gold.

From the rising Willamette Wineworks, a string of winery tasting rooms and wine bars climbs Sutter Street. (Point of differentiation: A winery tasting room customarily offers only its wines at little or no cost to consumers, though a fee generally is the practice, while a wine bar, such as Cellar Wine Bar in Folsom and Fizz Champagne and Bubbles Bar in Sacramento, pours the wines of several producers at individual and varied prices.)

Wineries with Sutter Street tasting rooms include Merlo Family Estate Vineyards of Trinity County and Rempfer Cellars of Amador County, which share cozy quarters on a site that has served various purposes for more than a century, including dance hall, livery stable and auto garage. Similarly, D’Artagnan Vineyards and Due Ragazze Vineyards, both of El Dorado County, share nearby quarters appointed with community tables made of cedar reclaimed from Lake County water tanks dating from the 1920s.

Tasting rooms far from vineyard and fermentation tank have become a crucial marketing tool for wineries, especially smaller family-owned operations that often have difficulty getting effective representation of their wines through traditional distribution channels. Hence such direct-to-consumer measures as the urban tasting room.

Also, tasting rooms often spring up in urban neighborhoods for logistical reasons. A winery might be far from a heavily trafficked route, as with Merlo in Trinity County’s isolated Hyampom Valley. Vintners sometimes don’t have a winery at all, making their wines in borrowed facilities, such as Rempfer, owned and operated by longtime Folsom resident Jeff Rempfer, a Sacramento fire fighter.

Similarly, D’Artagnan has its wines made in Napa Valley, though its vineyard is at El Dorado Hills, along a one-lane country road atop a ridge where a tasting room would be impractical.

Bob and Bonnie Reitz, who own D’Artagnan, first considered opening a tasting room at Fair Play, an enclave with several wineries in southwest El Dorado County, but concluded it would be too far removed. As a consequence, two years ago they opened their tasting room along Sutter Street, the first in Folsom.

“We want to help Folsom turn into a wine-destination place,” says Bonnie Reitz.

Compared with Folsom, winery tasting rooms have been slow to emerge in Sacramento. Yes, Sacramento has actual working wineries in Frasinetti Winery and in Revolution Wines, both of which include tasting rooms. And at nearby Clarksburg, the Old Sugar Mill is occupied with the tasting rooms of 15 wine brands. (The winery Railbridge Cellars and its tasting room closed two years ago.)

But the swarm of winery tasting rooms that populate communities like Sutter Creek, Healdsburg, Murphys and Carmel has yet to materialize in Sacramento. Nevertheless, Sacramento could be starting to develop its own community of winery tasting rooms, if the comfortable and artful Bailarin Cellars at 720 K St. is any indication.

Open since December, the tasting room for Bailarin shares space with a branch of Insight Coffee Roasters. Deanya Potratz, who manages the business, says the tastes of the clientele customarily starts to shift about 2 p.m., from coffee drinkers to wine enthusiasts.

Bailarin – Spanish for “dancer,” pronounced “by-la-reen” – is a brand owned by 19 mostly local principals led by Chris Ryan, CEO for both ends of the store, coffee house up front, tasting room in the back.

Bailarin buys its grapes from growers in such appellations as Russian River Valley and Mendocino County. Bailarin’s winemaker, Will Weese, makes the wines at Grapewagon Custom Crush of Healdsburg. His current lineup for Bailarin runs strongly to pinot noir, ranging from a light and bright 2014 from Suacci Vineyard in Russian River Valley to a richer and earthier 2015, also from Suacci.

Wines are available by flights ($10 for five one-ounce pours), by the glass and by the bottle. One advantage urban tasting rooms have over outlying wineries is that they often are open later. Bailarin, for example, is open to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. the latter half of the week.

Potratz says the group chose Sacramento for its only tasting room in part because most of the owners live here and in part because they wanted to be on the ground floor of what could develop into a trend of tasting rooms in the city. “We saw an opportunity for something fairly unique,” Potratz said.

Bailarin released its first wines in 2014, but without a clear marketing plan. “We weren’t thinking ahead,” says Ryan. Before long, however, they settled on a “pop-up” tasting room at the Insight of the Pavilions shopping center along Fair Oaks Boulevard. With the opening of Insight and Bailarin along K Street, the Pavilions shop is to close at the end of February, says Ryan.

Whether other wine brands follow Bailarin’s lead remains to be seen. Nearly two years ago, the Merlo family came close to opening a tasting room on upper J Street in midtown but the cost and the complexity in dealing with city officials prompted them to abandon their plans and to shift their focus to Folsom.

In Sacramento, prospective tasting rooms face two options: to open as either a restaurant or a bar. The Bailarin/Insight qualifies as a restaurant, with pastries to accompany coffee, cheese and charcuterie boards to complement wine. That involves lower fees than opening only a bar.

The Merlos weren’t planning to serve food and found the county building and planning code didn’t recognize tasting rooms -- only bars, restaurants and night clubs, according to Raymond Merlo. “We are none of these,” he said, adding: “Essentially (it) is impossible to put out a true tasting room in Sacramento County with the current building and planning code.”

His permit fees for a bar would have been $8,300. To open a tasting room in Folsom, in contrast, costs $2,567 in city fees.

As Jeff Rempfer says: “I would love to open a tasting room in downtown Sacramento, but it would not be cost effective with the high rents and fees.”

City officials can’t do much about rents, but they are aware of challenges that face wineries if they want to open a tasting room in Sacramento, particularly if they are weighing whether to be restaurant or bar; there’s no in-between classification for winery tasting rooms.

That may not be the case indefinitely. Evan Compton, senior planner with the city’s community- development department, says he is aware of obstacles facing wineries that would like to open a tasting room here and is pondering changes to streamline the process and make it less onerous.

“It is on a list of items I would like to take forward, so they (winery tasting rooms) wouldn’t be a bar or a restaurant, but another option,” says Compton.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.