They say great wine is made in the vineyard. Now some vintners are inviting guests to check that out through walking tours aimed at giving the real dirt on winemaking.
"One of the challenges facing the industry is there is this elitist perception of wine," says Clay Mauritson, winemaker at Mauritson Winery, which offers vineyard tours. "I just see a huge benefit to getting people in the vineyard and showing them how the wine is made."
The Mauritson tour is one of four self-guided walks put together with the assistance of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. (The other three are Paradise Ridge Winery, Balletto Vineyards and Matanzas Creek Winery.) The tours are free and visitors get information sheets pointing out various sights along the way; tasting room fees vary.
Trails are clearly marked with stopping points to look at various features, such as the Mauritson wind machines used to protect grapes from frost during the winter. (The fans draw in and circulate warmer air.) Different types of vines are pointed out, as well as the environments they like to live in — heavier, richer soils for sauvignon blanc, for instance, or gravelly dirt for cabernet sauvignon.
"It's a passive education," says Mauritson. "When they notice those things, what they're really doing is the essence of viticulture. You're not shoving it down their throat with hoity-toity wine talk, you're really letting them find out."
Amy Hoseth, a librarian from Fort Collins, Colo., who recently took the Mauritson tour with her husband, Chad, appreciates the low-key approach.
"I'd never seen grapes growing before, so it was cool to see how it all works," she said.
The couple visited a few wineries, including one where they took a tram ride through the fields, which they also enjoyed, but "it was just kind of fun to get out there and walk around." At the end of the tour, the couple got to stand near the crushpad and watch wine being bottled, a bonus peek into the world of winemaking.
Sonoma County isn't the only region inviting visitors to get up close and personal with the vines.
In next-door Napa Valley, Rubicon Estate — the historic Inglenook Winery painstakingly restored by director Francis Ford Coppola — has a variety of tours including a 45-minute Vinifera walk.
"This journey begins where our wine begins, in the vineyard, and that really was the impetus for us to do this," says Catherine Durand, senior director of retail operations at Rubicon.
The Vinifera tour, which costs $45 and culminates with a tasting of five wines, is guided and may take longer than 45 minutes depending on what people in the group want. "We ask guests, how much of this do you want to learn?" says Durand.
If you're looking for some serious leg-stretching, Kunde Family Estate, also in Sonoma County, has tours ranging from fairly short walks where dogs are welcome to moderately strenuous hikes that last up to four hours.
"We get people into our vineyards, show them our sustainable farming practices; they see beautiful vineyards. Our whole concept is to get people in the vineyards," says Jeff Kunde. "Everybody can see what estate wine is all about."
The winery has vehicles available to pick up anyone who finds the walk a bit much for them (a few old dogs have hitched rides, too) and they also have a completely motorized trip to a mountaintop tasting for those who want their views without vigor.
Kunde, which has been recognized for its sustainable growing practices, has 1,850 acres and a 1,500-foot elevation, so each hike is a little different.
There is a charge, which includes tastings and in some cases lunch. A portion of the fees goes to an appropriate charity — an environmental fund for the eco-tours; pro-animal groups for the dog hikes. Walks end with a wine tasting, and for the dogs, a water tasting.
Registration is online and tours fill up promptly.
Tiptoe through the tulips? That's so yesterday. Now you can prance past the pinot noir.