How to have the Perfect Barrel Tasting Weekend
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
First of all, what is Barrel Tasting? Well, I'll tell you!
Barrel Tasting is an annual event that happens the first two weekends of March in the Dry Creek, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley areas of Sonoma County. Over 75 participating wineries and tasting rooms during these weekends allow you to taste their wines straight from the barrel. You'll also get a chance to order "futures" from their barrel samples. This means you order the wine during Barrel Tasting weekend, then receive your wine once it's bottled 12-18 months later. This comes in handy when the futures you're sampling are so limited that when they are bottled, they often get sold out pretty quickly.
Sound like a fun, wine filled event? You bet! Sound a little intimidating and not sure how to go forward with planning your Barrel Tasting weekend? You've come to the right place! Here you will find helpful tips and tricks (from someone who's attended this event for over 6 years in a row) on how to plan the perfect Barrel Tasting weekend in Sonoma County.
Gather Your Crew
First, you need to have a good group of friends to join you! Whether that means a handful of friends and family, or just one or two others to join you, make sure these friends are interested in tasting some great wine all weekend.
You also want to make sure that this is a group of responsible drinkers who aren't looking at this event to winery hop and get drunk off wine. This is a great opportunity for a lot of local vintners to showcase their wine and teach people about their wine making process as well as sell future product and wine club memberships, and as participants we should respect that.
If you're looking to go with a group, make sure there aren't too many of you. Many of the wineries participating in Barrel Tasting are smaller, boutique wineries and cannot physically serve groups larger than 8 people in their tasting rooms, let alone house large buses in their parking lots. Keep in mind too, there will be a lot of other people participating in Barrel Tasting which can get overwhelming for these small wineries and tasting rooms. The Wine Road has actually banned buses from participating in Barrel Tasting weekends, so best to have a group of less than 8 people.
The smaller your group, the more undivided attention you can potentially get from the tasting room associates and wine makers. In the past I've attended Barrel Tasting weekend with a group of 7 or 6 people, as well as with just one of my girlfriends. I've had a great time every year, no matter the amount of friends I went with, but the time I went with just one friend I definitely felt I had a more quality experience.
Purchase Your Wrist Band
You can purchase your Barrel Tasting wrist band ahead of time online HERE. Wrist bands for Barrel Tasting typically go on sale around the 3rd to 4th week of January.
When purchasing your Barrel Tasting wrist band you have to choose which winery you will be picking up your wrist band and starting your day wine tasting. You can find a list of participating wineries HERE. You'll want to make sure that whoever you're kicking off Barrel Tasting with chooses the same winery to start at as well. Once you choose your starting winery, you must pick up your wrist band at that winery, you will not be able to pick up you Barrel Tasting wrist band at another winery or change you starting winery once you've made your purchase.
If there is a specific winery that you would like to start at, be sure to purchase your ticket early. There is only a certain amount of wrist bands a single winery can hand out for check-in, a lot of the times a popular winery will sell out as a "check-in" location so you must choose another winery to check-in and pick up your wrist band.
My favorite wineries to start at:
Once you've picked up your wrist band, you must wear this wrist band the entire time you plan on participating in Barrel Tasting. Be prepared to show your wrist band at each winery you taste at. If you lose your wrist band, you will have to purchase a new one. You must also be prepared to show your I.D. when you pick up your wrist band, as well as at any participating wineries. Barrel Tasting is a 21 and over event only, including designated drivers.
Speaking of designated drivers, they will also need to have a wrist band if they plan on entering any of the wineries or tasting rooms while the rest of the group is tasting wine. Designated driver wrist bands are usually around $5 to $10, and the proceeds go to a local charity. Designated drivers will also receive a small gift (like a coffee mug) as a thank you for driving their group responsibly.
Plan Your Wine Tasting Route Ahead of Time
In order to have the best time during Barrel Tasting weekend, you must map our your wine tasting route ahead of time. Barrel Tasting starts at 11am and ends at 4pm. If you pick wineries and tasting rooms by random or because you've heard of them or because they're popular, you risk spending a lot of your time driving and not tasting some delicious wine.
Here is a map of participating wineries for Barrel Tasting in 2020.
As you can see from the map, the list of participating wineries spans about 35 miles long. The wineries that are the furthest from each other are about a 45 minute drive from each other. Rather than risk spending a lot of time driving to different wineries in different regions, use this map to make sure you wont be wasting a lot of valuable wine tasting time. I like to choose about 4 wineries for one day of wine tasting that are no more than a 10 minute drive from each other. This way, you can spend some quality time at each winery, you don't feel rushed, and you don't spend a lot of your time in the car.
One great option, if you do not want to spend any of your time driving at all, is to taste around the Healdsburg Square. There are tons of tasting rooms participating in Barrel Tasting that are within walking distance. I recommend getting dropped off at the Healdsburg Town Square, spend your day tasting at participating wineries, then getting picked up when your day is over by a sober driver.
Pack Your Car with Goodies
I cannot express this enough, stay hydrated! You will hopefully be tasting all of the wine during Barrel Tasting so pack your car with water bottles to stay hydrated in between wineries.
During Barrel Tasting 2019 we put together little goody bags for each person in our group. We packing these little "sack lunches" with cookies, chips, fresh and dried fruit, anything to fill our stomachs to help balance all the alcohol we were drinking.
Another option I have done in the past is to make a picnic loaded with cheeses, charcuterie and sandwiches to then have during one of our winery stops. If you know it is going to be a beautiful day, find out if one of your winery stops has a spot on their property designated for picnics. Having a picnic at a winery is one of my favorite things to do in this area and this is a great way to have an "intermission" for your wine filled day.
I also recommend starting your day with a full stomach. I like to have a hearty breakfast before my Barrel Tasting begins so I don't drink all the wine on an empty stomach. I also like to end my day with a good meal. If you're looking for restaurant recommendations in the area, check out my blog post "Where to Eat in Downtown Healdsburg".
Wear the Right Clothing
Be sure to track the weather ahead of time to help you stay as comfortable as possible during your time wine tasting. I have participated in Barrel Tasting in all kinds of weather, and the right clothing and shoes will either make or break your entire experience. In the first few weeks of March in Sonoma County, you can experience hot and sunny weather, torrential rainfall, close to freezing temperatures with heavy fog, the list goes on. Play it safe and look at your weather app regularly to help you plan what you'll be wearing for your Barrel Tasting weekend.
If you need some inspiration for your wine country wardrobe, check out my blog post, "Packing for a Girls Trip to Wine Country".
Where to Stay
There are no shortages in accommodations in this area of Sonoma County. There are several Hotels as well as vacation home rentals in the area to choose from. Be sure to choose a place to stay at that is closer to the Dry Creek, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valleys.
Here are some places I would recommend staying at:
I hope this guide helps you have the best experience during Barrel Tasting. Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to subscribe and send me a message!
You can also click the link below for more information pertaining to Barrel Tasting as well as other events happening in the Sonoma County are.