Sonoma Underground: Spotlighting Independent Wine Producers - February 24, 2018
Taste the wines of small, independent Sonoma County wine producers at Sonoma Underground, a new wine tasting experience holding its inaugural event on Saturday, Feb. 24, in Healdsburg.
The landscape of Sonoma County’s wine country is as beautiful as ever in February, when the vineyards are leafless but bright green takes to the grassy hills.
But the “landscape” of the wine business has changed here, as it has elsewhere. Some observers are concerned that independent wineries struggle to grain traction in a field increasingly dominated by big investor-owned brands.
Sonoma Underground promises to help sort out the real people from the big brands. It’s the brainchild of two media and digital marketing professionals who defected from the world of wine marketing, and instead are turning the spotlight on small, independently owned wineries.
Once upon a time, Elizabeth Schneider, now host of the award-winning Wine for Normal People podcast and author of the upcoming book of the same title, was a wide-eyed East Coaster who was excited to get her first opportunity to work in the California wine business for a “really large winery,” she says. But she was soon disenchanted.
“It was disappointing for me,” says Schneider, “that they treated wine like I could have gone to (a big food corporation) and worked with candy bars. There’s such a great distance in large wineries between administration and marketing, and the people who are doing the production.”
She realized there was a real need for wine education at a basic level. “That’s why I started Wine for Normal People,” Schneider explains. “I don’t interview the really famous people.”
Instead, she asks, what is the hidden gem — who is the person making 1,200 cases? “I find their stories are more interesting. And that’s what my audience gravitates to.”
“But I started seeing a lot of consolidation in the industry, the stress that puts on smaller-to-medium sized producers, and the fear that everything is going to be corporatized.”
As often as the term “small family winery” is used in wine marketing, it isn’t a license to print money. Despite romantic images of the wine country lifestyle, many independent winemakers struggle to stay out of the red when poring over their yearly finances — although with a glass of red in hand, naturally.
“We have to do something for the small producer,” says Schneider, “or they are going to go away, because they can’t compete.”
It was important to establish criteria, so Sonoma Underground is capped at a maximum production of 10,000 cases (per year) for each participating winery. (For reference, that’s equivalent to about 400 barrels of wine).
Currently, the largest participating winery makes about 7,000 cases of wine, and the smallest just 200 cases (about eight barrels).
“We want to move the needle for these people,” says Schneider. “Every producer will also have an episode on my podcast.”
The exposure is great for a winery like Crux, she notes, which makes unique varietal wines sourced from the Russian River Valley, but doesn’t have the marketing budget to go on the road and sell wines across the country.
In Dry Creek Valley, Nalle Winery is run by founder Doug Nalle with his son, Andrew. They are dedicated to producing a dinner table-friendly style of Zinfandel that usually comes in at under 14 percent alcohol by volume.
“That’s hard to find on the market these days,” Schneider notes. “But they’re delicious.”
Bucher Wines farms 30 acres of grapevines and sells to world-renowned Pinot Noir specialist Williams Selyem, but the family also still runs a certified organic dairy, selling their milk to Clover Sonoma.
Longboard Vineyards hosts the Sonoma Underground event in their cellar, located in a neighborhood just east of downtown Healdsburg. Longboard’s Syrah, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine labels may look like a fun brand — the label features a “longboard” surf board — but the winery is the real deal, established in 1998 by Oded Shakked, a 30-year resident of Healdsburg wine country.
Sonoma Underground won’t be a one-off event, says Schneider — expect to see more Underground wine events crop up in the future.
The event will feature a brief presentation by a guest speaker who will offer context — a retrospective of the wine business in Sonoma County, and a forward-looking discussion of the future.
Event organizers are also picking out a local, family-run caterer who will serve up small bites.
Participating wineries to date:
Limerick Lane Wines
The Larsen Projekt
Sonoma Underground, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, 2–5 p.m. Tickets, $49. Longboard Vineyards, 5 Fitch St., Healdsburg, undergroundwineevents.com