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Edd Lopez, vice president for sales and marketing at Trattore Farms in Dry Creek Valley, expounds on the expansive view from the winery’s hilltop wine tasting patio in Northern Sonoma County. The pandemic, he says, has brought about changes for the better when it comes to customer visits. Photo by Jerry Ondash
ColumnsHit the Road

Hit the Road: On the Wine Road, outdoor tastings are ‘in’

Northern California’s got water troubles just like Southern California, but from our perch on the expansive, hilltop patio of Trattore Farms, one of about 200 wineries on Northern Sonoma’s Wine Road, the north’s drought looks a lot greener than ours. The view before us is stunningly peaceful and verdant.

Trattore Farms, like so many other businesses during this COVID-19 pandemic, has moved from serving its customers inside to outside, and here in Northern Sonoma, this is not a bad thing. Wine tasting in this bucolic setting in the late-morning sun? What’s not to like?

It’s been a fractious ride through the pandemic and we’re not past the rapids yet, but our journey has crystalized one (and maybe the only) fact on which nearly everyone agrees: Open spaces are the safest places.

So know that Northern Sonoma County is open for business, but don’t come in!

Remain outside in the anxiety-free zone and relish the area’s romantic terroir which brings us the grapes that bring us the wine that brings us to the Russian, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.

“Visitors love to sit out here and see this,” says Trattore’s vice president of sales and marketing, Edd Lopez, with a sweep of his hand toward the picture-postcard landscape. “There’s Geyser Peak and sometimes you can see Mount St. Helena.”

A live oak that’s more than 200 years old is one stop on the half-mile vineyard trail at Amista Vineyards near Healdsburg. Self-guided and owner-led tours and shaded picnic tables for gathering are all designed to provide a safe outdoor experience for wine-tasting guests. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The pandemic has forced Lopez to orchestrate wine tastings differently and, he believes, for the better. Trattore guests now get a small tray covered by a template indicating which wines, olive oils (from the farm’s 7,000 trees) and vinegar they’ll sample. Our trays arrive with shot glasses and tiny ramekins, accompanied by bread cubes (gluten-free bread available).

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner,” Lopez jokes.

Later, a few miles south, we discover the estate-grown sparkling wines of Amista Vineyards. We sit at a vineyard-side table shaded by a sizable mulberry tree whose branches sway in a light breeze. At the next socially distanced table, three young women in summer dresses and their patient dogs enjoy the al fresco experience.

Tasting host Madeline Camp, a recent college grad and Ohio transplant, explains that the estate grows Rhone-style varietals — grenache, syrah and mourvèdre – and how the bubbles get into the bottle. And there is more.

“The owners (Vicky and Mike Farrow) also grow herbs, tomatoes, cut flowers and kale,” Camp adds, “and Vicky also gives walking tours through the vineyard.”

Absent the owners, we take the free, self-guided tour through Morningsong Vineyard, so named because on her morning inspection walks, Vicky Farrow always hears the singing birds.

You can’t walk through Pech Merle Winery’s indoor tasting room on the way to the vine-covered patio without admiring the artifacts from another age. The Geyserville winery, named after the prehistoric caves of Pech Merle (pesh-mael) in France, is developing an outdoor space in Dry Creek Valley for gatherings. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

The half-mile trail with signage takes us through the sustainably grown vines, past an immense 200-plus-year-old oak tree, and back to the patio with a nearby “living wall” fully packed with succulents. The sustainable farm draws its power from solar panels atop the patio.

Because of pandemic regulations, many tasting rooms in downtown Healdsburg have migrated to the sidewalk. We spend a post-lunch hour in Portalupi Wines’ airy “parklet,” outside its regular indoor tasting room, sampling “Cal-Ital” wines, including their bold Barbera. At this point, my capacity is limited, so I sip from my husband’s glass and thoroughly enjoy the passing parade of oenophiles. Clearly, being relegated to the outdoors is not a hardship.

For our five-day, four-night stay in Wine Road territory, we headquartered in the recently renovated Hotel Trio, a mile from downtown Healdsburg (free shuttle available).  Centrally located for wine-country forays, the hotel features a full kitchen in every room ($249 and up) and full hot breakfasts (including gluten-free oatmeal).

And then there’s Rosé, the R2D2-like robot who brings to your door fresh towels, extra toiletries, wine — anything that fits into her flip-top compartment. I admit, I was skeptical. But in the end, darn it, I was taken. Rosé “converses” and does a happy dance if you give her five stars. That’s tough not to like.

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