[By Richard Sheppard in Geyserville, California] One of Sonoma County’s most popular wine events here in Northern California is Barrel Tasting Weekend. On the first two weekends in March, more than 20,000 tasters converge upon the Healdsburg area to sample young wines right out of the barrel. One may also purchase wine “futures,” thereby speculating on upcoming releases. The discounts are hard to pass up, and many limited-release wines sell out even before they’re bottled.
I love Barrel Tasting time as it affords the perfect opportunity to meet winemakers, cellar masters, and winery owners, who are available to provide an insider’s view of the winemaking world not often available to the public.
Saturday morning, my wife Marilyn and I follow Canyon Road uphill from Geyserville toward Pedroncelli Winery. After passing through a stretch of moss-covered oaks, leafless rows of knotted vines flow wavelike over hills into the valley below.
When we reach the Pedroncelli sign, we turn right and park beside a vineyard. Family member Ed St. John, standing before the outdoor greeting table, addresses me along with five other newly arrived visitors, handing each of us a tasting glass. He invites our small group on a mini tour of the grounds.
During Prohibition, John Pedroncelli and his family purchased this then-defunct winery. At the time, commercial winemaking was illegal, but Mr. Pedroncelli planned to sell grapes to home winemakers, a legal practice. Long after repeal, John’s winemaker son — also named John — joined his father, and a few years later, Jim, another son, became sales manager. In the early 1960s, the brothers bought out their dad. Fifty years later, and with the help of third, and now fourth generation Pedroncellis, the winery continues as family owned.
Our group filters into the barrel room for tasting, where we watch octogenarian John Pedroncelli extracting from the barrel using a wine thief. The long open glass tube, tapered at one end, is lowered into the barrel and the thumb is used to cover the top opening. Take the thumb away and the wine in the tube flows into the taster’s glass. I’m poured a taste of a young Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Cabernet Franc. I swirl my glass to draw in air and release aromas. The wine tastes full-bodied and leaves a velvety texture in my mouth.
“This Cabernet has been aging for 12 months,” John tells our group, “and will probably spend another month or two in the barrel before bottling and release.”
After the wine tasting, I ask for advice on a good place to picnic and sketch. John says the two small hills to the north provide the best views.
Once outside, Marilyn and I climb a low hill, passing through chamomile and mustard flowers, to find a clear space in the shade of an oak. Lunch is simple fare: goat cheese, crackers, thinly sliced turkey, and fragrant orange slices.
With the Dry Creek Valley visible in the near distance, we listen to laughing tasters make their way in and out of the winery below. After savoring a square of chocolate, I sketch the winery, stopping to watch a ladybug crawl across my sketchbook.