On a tip from a co-worker, while I was visiting my brother and his fiancée in San Francisco, I was to instruct them to take me and my friend wine tasting in Sonoma County. Less crowded and less pretentious than Napa, the same co-worker suggested we head to Healdsburg and tour the Alexander Valley and Strykker wineries. My brother had other plans.
After living in San Francisco for nearly three years and taking many house guests wine tasting, he had committed a personal wine tasting tour map to memory. We were driven to the city of Sonoma and sampled sips at Jacuzzi, Schug, Ledson and Chateau St. Jean. The one thing I was not prepared for was the mass quantities of wine I would be imbibing.
Prior to the trip, I had visions of sipping and spitting. However, when we began to swirl and sip, not one spit receptacle was in sight. I found out later, after getting through the gruelling task of sipping so much I had to prop myself up on the bar by the elbows at the end, that if you wish to spit, you must request a receptacle from the bar host or hostess--wine tasting is such hard work.
*Most wineries waive tasting fees if part of the party buys a bottle or more of wine. **Tasting hours are typically from 10am-5pm; check each winery's website for hours.
Jacuzzi: Here the tastings are FREE of charge. Portions are small--but heck, five tries for free ain't too shabby. The bar hosts and hostesses are quite friendly and ready to tell you about the winery's history. They'll even take a snapshot of you and your friends, shall you ask. The adjoining shop sells everything vineyard-related, including olive oil soaps and ice-cream. The jalapeño olive oil and lime oil are otherworldly.
Schug: Started by Walter Schug in 1980, two of the newest Schugettes served us when we visited. They gave generous portions and since we were a group of five, we split the tasting charges. Two people chose the regular menu ($5) and two others the reserves ($10). This way we all got a chance to sip both reserves and regulars. Their celebrated pinot noir is sublime.
Ledson: Set on a picturesque castle estate, this winery was the glitziest of them all. The bar hostess was knowledgeable, but not as charming as our servers at Jacuzzi and Schug. Here they are vigilant about portion control. Although, they do offer tasters all the breadsticks they can stomach and if you try the port, you'll get a bonus handful of chocolate morsels to go with the dessert wine. $15 gets you 6 samples of specific vinos. Enjoy a picnic lunch of their sandwiches, which are made-to-order and can be eaten at their outdoor tables.
Chateau St. Jean: Here we had to sip and run as we arrived five minutes before closing time. Again, the staff wasn't as warm as those at Jacuzzi and Schug, but the wine was divine. For $10, you get 5 samples. They have gorgeous gardens, where water features abound and it's the perfect setting for a wine-lover's wedding.