The Tasting Room Experience

The Tasting Room Experience

July 14, 2014

Cinematic-resort, working farm and creekside settings

By Mary-Colleen Tinney

One of the many advantages of living in Sonoma County is the easy access to the hundreds of wineries that dot our picturesque landscape. But when you (or your wine country visitors) have young children to entertain, many believe that wine tasting is firmly off the list of activity options. These days, though, that needn’t be the case. Sonoma County wineries are often family-friendly, and several not only welcome kids to their tasting rooms, they encourage and warmly embrace their visits.

Wine is a social drink, one that is meant to be shared at mealtime with family and friends. And while the children can’t partake in the drink, they can partake in the experience, perhaps learning more about agriculture, food and culture along the way.

For this story, we focused on tasting rooms that offer children a little something extra for their visit. These wineries provide amenities that will keep children as entertained as their adult minders, while allowing the adults to indulge in exploring the many ways Sonoma County is one of the best wine regions in the world.

I’ll start with a short suggestion for a first stop: J Vineyards, which we covered extensively in our 2014 Spring edition, “Sparkling Wine.” The winery offers complimentary bottles of apple juice as well as animal crackers for their youngest guests, which could come in handy later while on the wine road.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery

Francis Ford Coppola is one of cinema’s greatest achievers, and his eponymous winery is a striking homage to the Academy Award-winning director’s diverse career interests. The French-inspired Chateau in Geyserville was originally home to Chateau Souverain, but was reopened in 2010 as Coppola’s family-friendly “wine resort.”

Complete with restaurants, swimming pools, a mini-museum of Coppola’s film career and a performing arts pavilion, the property was designed by Coppola’s longtime production designer, Dean Tavoularis. The collaboration between the two artists is evident in its breadth and detail, with much emphasis placed on presentation. Everything from water fountains to wine packaging is given a bit of visual flair.

A family could easily spend a full day here, and they almost needn’t even go inside the winery building to do so. The outdoor space at the Chateau, reached via a pair of grand, twisting stone staircases, is dominated by the 3,600-square-foot, lifeguard-monitored swimming pools, a gazebo-like poolside café and an adjacent performing arts pavilion. A few steps away are four bocce courts, gaming tables and even a children’s lending library teepee, all overlooking the lush Anderson Valley landscape. Game equipment is available, for free, from the guest services concierge near the café. Because of the on-site restaurants, picnicking is discouraged.

On weekends during the summer, the winery offers kids their own $1 smoothie tasting experience. Using freshly sourced fruits and veggies, the children can guess the ingredients and are taught how to identify the different flavors and textures in their own delicious drinks. There are often other activities for the kids, too, from music or presentations at the pavilion to arts and crafts. Check the winery’s website for the latest schedule of events.

Lining the edge of the pool deck are 28 green-and-white personal changing rooms, called cabines by the Italia-centric proprietor, available by advanced reservation only. While there are a limited number of daily pool passes available ($30 for adults, $15 for children and seniors), booking a cabine allows guests to use up to four of the dozens of bright blue chaise lounges and multi-colored cloth umbrellas surrounding the pool ($135-$180 per cabine, including two wine tastings). Unfortunately, reservations for summer weekends are fully booked months in advance. There are cancellations, though, so a waiting list is available. Reservations are available for weekday rentals throughout the summer. The pool is open daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., from May to September, and on weekends during spring and fall.

Wine tasting is conducted inside the large chateau, where there are still plenty of things for curious kids and adults to see and do. In fact, given the size of the building, I was surprised that I felt cramped and busy at the main tasting bar, even on a slow Monday afternoon. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery portfolio includes 10 different brands and more than 40 different individual wines. There are a variety of tasting options, from the complimentary tastes of two Rosso and Bianco wines, to a $10 Family Flight of California wines and a $15 Neighbor's Flight of Sonoma County wines. The individual wines in each flight are rotated each week, but on my visit I particularly enjoyed the off-dry 2011 Sofia Riesling and the savory dark fruit notes on the 2012 Director’s Zinfandel.

There is extensive retail space throughout the winery, interspersed with detailed exhibits about Coppola’s most famous films. While adults might be more inspired by Don Corleone’s desk from “The Godfather,” kids may delight in seeing the large-scale model ships from Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” or the original Tucker car from “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”

The retail options here are notable mostly for the wide-ranging types of merchandise. It is more akin to a collection of high-end boutiques than a typical tasting room fare of branded wine openers and t-shirts. It is almost certainly the only winery that offers candy, baby clothes, housewares and fish-eye cameras alongside boar-bristle shaving brushes and “Apocalypse Now”-inspired grape-leaf camouflage golf shirts.

The property also features an upscale restaurant, Rustic, and a separate full bar, called Francis’s Favorites. Dining is available from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. With all that Francis Ford Coppola Winery has to offer, it is a destination where a visit could range from an hour or an entire day, depending on the energy and budget of the kids and adults alike.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery, 300 Via Archimedes Rd., Geyserville, CA. 707-857-1400, Open daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Preston of Dry Creek

For those looking for an entirely different atmosphere for their tasting room visits, there is Preston of Dry Creek. Founded in the 1970s, this longtime family-owned Dry Creek Valley winery is known not only for its delicate, mostly-Rhone-varietal wines, but their commitment to being a sustainable, organic and biodynamic local food source.

Visitors here will find not only a bucolic, friendly tasting room, but a real working farm. On the day we visited, we were greeted by a trio of lambs waiting to be taken to join the farm's larger flock – the first time my three-year-old friend accompanying me that day had ever seen a sheep up close. If no farm animals are on-hand, several friendly cats also roam the farm. If you’re lucky, you might find one or two nestled on one of the well-worn wicker chairs on the tasting room homey deck. As with any animal, children should be careful with the cats, only interacting with them if they choose to welcome the attention. 

In the courtyard, there is a large grassy area with picnic tables (inquire in the tasting room for permission to picnic – they are more than happy to host, as long as the only alcohol consumed on the premises are Preston wines). Overlooking the courtyard is the tasting room’s long, well-worn deck. You will find fresh flowers, vegetables and fruits from the farm, comfy chairs and a colorful, child-sized bench for weary young visitors.

Inside, the winery's bright, airy tasting room and farm store have a warm, lived-in feel. With hardwood floors and vineyard-country furnishings, including retired wine barrels, wooden bookshelves, mismatched antique wooden tables and even an antique stove. The attached farm store offers owner Lou Preston's famous fresh bread (baked daily, and you can occasionally see bakers preparing the bread through the tasting room’s windows into the kitchen) as well as house-made olive oil and pickled olives. When available, there are also estate-grown fruits and vegetables.

For kids, in the front corner of the tasting room, guests will find a corner bookcase and a comfortable chair. There are books for kids and adults of all ages to enjoy (including some in Spanish or in both Spanish and English). As long as the book is taken care of and put back before visitors leave, they are allowed to read the books anywhere on the property.

For a $10 fee, wine-tasting adults are allowed to choose tastes from four of Preston’s wines. The available wines for the day are written on a chalkboard behind the marble-and-wainscoting tasting bar. Their Madam Preston white Rhone blend (of Viognier, Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne) was a standout, with subtle floral notes complemented by lush tropical flavors. The L. Preston red blend is equally complex, but their Petit Sirah, with its dark berry fruit flavors and rich mouthfeel, is another standout.

Post-tasting, visitors are welcome to take a self-guided tour around the property. On weekdays, there are bocce courts available for use. Visitors can also explore the organic gardens and orchards, including pick-your-own strawberries. Overall, this is a relaxing, local’s favorite.

Preston of Dry Creek, 9282 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA. 707-433-3372, Open daily, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Truett Hurst

Founded in 2007 by longtime wine industry veterans with a mission to make world-class biodynamic wines, Truett Hurst is one of the newer wineries in Sonoma County. However, it has quickly emerged as a Healdsburg favorite. True to their environmentally friendly philosophy, Truett Hurst is centered around biodynamic farming practices. In very simple terms, biodynamics is described a closed-loop ecosystem, with each part of the farm being used to contribute to the overall health of the property. For example, decorative wildflowers and cover crops could later be turned into vineyard compost treatments, and farm animals are used to both fertilize the land and eliminate weeds. 


The 26-acre estate is home to a tasting room that might be best described as a modern farmhouse. The building was constructed with eco-friendly materials, including salvaged walnut slabs and palm woods. The result is a light, airy room awash in warm yellow and reds with an exposed-beam vaulted ceiling completing the farmhouse look. Mid-century modern white couches and an abundance of natural light from the large windows and glass doors along one wall create an inviting tasting space. The venue is both child- and dog-friendly, and on busy weekends children are likely to find playmates of both species. Meanwhile. adults will appreciate the well-appointed patio with ample seating for picnics or relaxing with a bottle of wine.


Here, the attraction for children and adults alike are the winery grounds. Truett Hurst has given easy access to one of the hallmarks of their biodynamic farming practices: the sheep, goats and chickens that live on the property. There are also extensive, yet easy-to-navigate, organic gardens to explore.


But perhaps the best and most unique feature of Truett Hurst is their creekside seating areas. There are three creekside terraces, where four or five red Adirondack chairs are clustered around a modified-barrel table alongside the water. Because the creek is home to protected coho and chinook salmon, swimming is not permitted. It does, however, give visitors the perfect (and peaceful) opportunity to do some fish spotting. The tasting room offers polarized-lens “fish glasses” to guests, which make the fish easier to see in the water.


The winery encourages guests to enjoy the relaxing setting, offering picnic foods and drinks (along with wine, of course). On weekends, too, the winery has a variety of live music acts on the patio – check the website for the upcoming schedule.


While the grounds and setting are beautiful, the wines cannot be overlooked. All the Truett Hurst wines are named for animals that can be found on the winery property – on a relaxed day, you can ask the hospitality associate for stories about the personalities of the animals, as well. The bracing, citrusy and green Bluebird Sauvignon Blanc has the refreshing style that I love, while for the reds I preferred the spicy and fruity Luci Zinfandel. You are asked to choose five of the wines to taste, though if the tasting room isn’t busy, you may have the opportunity to taste more. Each tasting comes with a sampling of crackers and cheese as well.


You can also ask your attendant about the winery’s continual move toward innovative packaging – they recently released a square bottle and paper-wrapped wines, and they  are responsible for the pressed cardboard PaperBoy-branded bottles you may have seen recently in Safeway stores. Though those wines do not carry the Truett-Hurst name (the wines are not sourced from the Sonoma County estate), they are also crafted by Truett Hurst winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix.

Truett Hurst, 5610 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA. 707-433-9545, Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 



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