Many people flock to California’s wine country and head straight for the big estates. But on a recent trip to Sonoma County, I discovered the upside of visiting smaller, family-owned vineyards and off-the-beaten path tasting rooms.
My first visit to California’s wine country was an ambitious one: I planned to go to five or six well-known wineries in one day. I wanted to see (and sample from) all the popular places, and I figured the packed itinerary would be worth it. But after hours of traveling between stops, stressing about staying on schedule and clamoring to get bar or table space in the tasting rooms, I wondered if there was a better (or at least more relaxed) way to experience wine country.
So when I visited the second time around with my family, we decided to skip the large estates in favor of smaller wineries — and cut our itinerary down to three stops. We booked private tastings at a few family-owned vineyards in Sonoma County, and I enjoyed myself much more. It’s always fun to taste the latest releases from your favorite big label, but here’s why you may want to consider a more relaxed, intimate experience at a lesser-known, boutique winery.
Delving Deep into a Varietal
We spent the better part of our morning at Moshin Vineyards, a small winery outside of Healdsburg known for its pinot noir. Nestled in a forested area near a picturesque river, Moshin’s headquarters feature a gorgeous rustic tasting room, outdoor sculptures and a quaint farmhouse for private tastings. Like many other small estates, Moshin isn’t located on a main highway. For me, that was part of its draw. It made for a less stressful drive, and also allowed me to admire more of the region’s natural scenery.
A couple of weeks before the trip, our tasting coordinator called to plan our visit. He and I came up with a list of wines that ranged from a summer-friendly white to a big, savory Zinfandel, with some of the winery’s signature pinot noirs thrown in. It was an eclectic mix to suit my entire family. You can enjoy the luxury of this kind of customization more easily at small wineries, where guides have more time to personalize your experience.
While some members of my family sampled from our entire list, I opted for a crash course in pinot noir, a wine I previously didn’t care for. Our coordinator guided me in tasting various types and by the end, I was sold — literally — and bought a bottle of my favorite. Now at home, I find myself regularly perusing the pinot noirs on restaurant wine lists.
If you’re heading to smaller, family-owned vineyards, make reservations ahead of time. Some don’t accept walk-ins and have a limited number of slots for private tastings and tours.
Getting the Family Treatment
One of my favorite parts about wine tasting is the one-on-one time I get with winemakers. That’s difficult to achieve at a large winery, but at smaller establishments, you may find the winemakers or owners themselves at the counter pouring samples. And they’re usually thrilled to talk about their business and life’s passion. Plus, the vibe at most small wineries is an inviting one. At Moshin, our experience sipping wine with our guide while seated around a dining room table felt intimate and casual — as if we were enjoying a good bottle with friends and family at home.
For a similar vibe in downtown Sonoma, try BUMP Wine Cellars. The boutique winery houses a small, cozy tasting room and a rotating cast of art on the walls. We sought out this particular spot because we’d heard they offer unique, sustainable Sonoma County wines. The owners were happy to chat about wine, and they expertly recommended pours that suited our tastes. BUMP was a pleasant late afternoon stop to escape the heat and learn about the science behind sustainable vinification, a growing trend in Sonoma. If you like big wines, don’t miss their juicy, full-bodied Zinfandels.
Feeling Inspired in Healdsburg
Our last stop was in downtown Healdsburg, where we visited the tasting room for Hawley Winery, another Sonoma-based, family-owned operation. The small and beautiful space features a bar made from old barrels. While the atmosphere here was more bustling, the staff was still attentive and helpful.
I gravitated toward my favorite red, cabernet sauvignon. But the bartenders also introduced me to several of their Bordeaux-style blends that offered interesting layers of flavor. The great education they offered convinced me to visit Hawley’s vineyards (which offer reservation-only tours) on my next trip.
Overall, Northern California is replete with wonderful boutique wineries. And I can’t wait to go back, pull up a bar stool and have a good chat over a great glass of wine.
If you’re planning to purchase any bottles while you’re tasting, bring a cooler. Temperatures can climb high (especially in the summer), and wine left in hot cars can spoil in a matter of hours.
Find a wine tasting experience or culinary tour available through the Marriott Vacation Club Destinations® Exchange Program.