.Wine, Unmasked

Sipping safely at area wineries

In normal times, I’m not one to dither about an invitation to a gourmet lunch, with wine—and real Champagne!—at Jordan Vineyard & Winery. But, these times not being normal, dither I did.

I hedged. I even offered up a proxy—wouldn’t Bohemian editor Daedalus Howell rather enjoy this experience?

The experience is called Paris on the Terrace, a $110 wine tasting and lunch in an outdoor setting, which Jordan is offering in summer 2020 to welcome visitors back to their picturesque corner of the Alexander Valley wine region, while complying with an ever-shifting regime of shutdown and reopening guidelines set by state and county authorities in ongoing efforts to limit the spread of Covid-19.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

The latest state health order, at press time, limits wine tasting in Sonoma County to outdoor experiences until at least Aug. 2, but does not require food service, an earlier reopening stricture that many wineries found confusing or impractical. Bars, clubs, breweries, brewpubs, and distilleries, however, may only serve drinks in the same transaction as a meal.

Eventually, the winery’s longtime director of marketing, Lisa Mattson, conscripted me to attend the tasting—not virtually, through the video conferencing tools like Zoom that have become indispensable, if also problematic, during the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a real-time tasting, in the flesh, tender parts of which are susceptible to infection by a stealthy, novel coronavirus that continues to stalk every corner of California Wine Country.

If that last line doesn’t sound overwrought, you’re catching up with these times.

Mattson explained that seatings, at 11am and 2pm, Thursdays through Mondays until Sept. 7, are scheduled to allow ample time to wipe down and disinfect high-touch surfaces and objects like tables and chairs. Currently, all tasting rooms must require visitors to secure a reservation, and the three I visited in the past month declared that all such surfaces were cleaned in between parties of visitors.

At first, my visit to Jordan’s terrace tasting felt just like a dream! Well, I’ve been having these dreams for the past several months, in which I’m wading through a happily buzzy pub, and suddenly realize that nobody’s wearing a face mask—good heavens, what are they thinking? Or worse, leaning in to talk to someone, I realize with horror that I am unmasked. It’s the new “naked” dream.

No—you, too?

This is the first time in months I’ve sat down and talked this close, without a face covering, with anyone except my very senior cat (and even then maybe I should, as she would appear to anyone as nothing so much as a hobbling ball of fur and underlying conditions). Speaking with Mattson and her colleagues, who are wearing fashionable—if not entirely medical grade attire—at all times, I self-consciously pull mine back on—since hospitality workers are more at risk over the long term than the visitor—and again when I’m speaking with Howell, who turns up at the table a judicious six-plus feet away from mine.

Yet, when Howell declares halfway into lunch that he’s actually feeling kind of alright about things for once, I have to agree. Who wouldn’t, after half a glass each of Jordan Cuvée by Champagne AR Lenoble; Jordan 2016 Chardonnay, which shows more bright apple and toasty character than previous vintages; two vintages of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2016 displaying the remarkable consistency of the supple, leather-and-mixed berries hallmarks of this restaurant favorite wine, despite a recent switch to French oak. And there’s the cuisine, by Jordan chef Todd Knoll: a precious arrangement of greens, vegetables and flowers from the estate garden just below the terrace; charcuterie from Healdsburg’s Journeyman Meats; crispy fougasse and rillette. Completing the pastoral scene, Jordan’s herd of cattle head for pasture, with uncommitted leisure.

Wineries have been hit hard by the pandemic and shutdowns, especially those that rely heavily on “on-premise” restaurant sales. Luckily for Jordan, according to Mattson, they moved to better position themselves in “off-premise” retail back in 2019. Many wineries count on a steady stream of walk-in wine tasters to generate immediate revenue, as well as wine club sign-ups. But are these kinds of limited, if tentatively sanctioned, wine-tasting experiences enough to keep them afloat?

“Yes and no,” answers Suzanne Hagins, co-owner of Horse & Plow Winery. “We get good support from our locals, but people are just not out. And I get it.”

Hagins is also concerned about the musicians and artists who used to regularly appear in afternoon shows and exhibits at their “tasting barn,” which has become a popular hangout in the four years they’ve been open in Sebastopol. But, the patio space, garden and oak-shaded picnic area adjacent to the tasting room has allowed them to separate tables widely and reopen for bottle service only, Fridays through Sundays, noon to 5pm.

Although Horse & Plow shut down voluntarily two days before California’s state-wide order in mid-March, they became the unlucky poster child of Covid-era wine tasting when a Bay Area daily newspaper published an undated photo of their tasting room—that was taken two years previously—as an example of the kind of activity that would have to shut down in the coming weeks.

For guidance, Hagins says she relies on the governor’s press conferences, County of Sonoma health orders and helpful tips from Sonoma County Farm Trails and industry colleagues. But there’s been no direct guidance or auditing, according to Hagins.

In between each seating, tables and chairs are sprayed and wiped down, and the kraft paper that covers picnic tables is changed. On a recent Sunday, groups of two to four adults stop by a table fronting the now-closed tasting room, to make their selection and choose a table. Food is not required here, but cheese and charcuterie plates are available, plus a pack of snacks and juice box for kids. Visitors, many from out of town, are generally quite respectful of the new rules, says Hagins, allowing that some tend to loosen up on their mask strings a little when leaving, after a glass or two of wine.

It’s certainly a must to lower my mask to take a whiff of Horse & Plow’s 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, a rush of juicy, nectarine and grapefruit aromas, or the 2019 Draft Horse Red, a soft and easy-drinking summer red with hints of dried Mediterranean herb and raspberry sour candy.

I’m glad that the unmasked party of four twenty-somethings at the next table, a good 10 or 12 feet away, are enjoying themselves, too. But, while I can’t assume they’re not in the same household, snippets of their conversation suggest otherwise. And I wonder—is this all going to work out OK?

• • • 

My host at the outdoor bar at Iron Horse Vineyards says he’s not afraid of a little “policing,” asking members of groups next to each other who get to talking excitedly, and a little too close—as people do when drinking the bubbly wine—to please don a mask if they’re going to converse. Still, “It’s not a frat party anymore,” he says, “with people six deep at the bar.”

The tastings here are also spaced apart in time, four per day, to allow cleaning. But at the bar, it’s clear it could get a little too close to comfort. In mid summer of 2020, the obsession with blasting seldom-touched objects with sanitizer (remember dubiously dunking your bag of tortilla chips in a tub of chlorine solution—anyone else?) seems a bit quaint, as guidance has moved toward mask-wearing as the best effort to ward off viral infection.

Indeed, an oft-quoted, recent article in The Atlantic dubbed the deceptively reassuring practice of surface disinfecting, “hygiene theater.”

Curiously, the County of Sonoma still has the outdated statement, “CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face covering to protect themselves from respiratory diseases,” on their Epidemic Preparedness website page. The CDC currently recommends, “people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household.”

It’s easy to relax with a pour of the latest Iron Horse Brut X, which was particularly rich in 2014, with the sweet, creamy aroma of glazed Danish, and grapefruit, for a wine with zero sugar added to the dosage. Another surprise, and sign of the times, is the winery’s seldom-seen Fairytale Cuvée, a special 500-case lot that’s been sent down south to the Mouse for the past 15 years at Disneyland California, and related cruises and venues. It’s pretty darn tasty—and it’s also hard to beat the view in this corner of California wine country.

Having had enough with driving around Wine Country in post-lockdown traffic, I call up Liam Gearity, director of hospitality at Frank Family Vineyards, to get a perspective from Napa Valley.

“In the beginning, I don’t think anyone saw it dragging on as long as it did,” says Gearity.

Frank Family opted to open up a week after the go-ahead on June 6, in order to focus on preparedness. Like other wineries, they book distinct slots of time for guests, at 1:30pm and 3:30pm, and allow 30 minutes for cleaning. (They also still welcome guests with a glass of sparkling wine.)

The biggest challenge, says Gearity, is the quality of the guest experience.

“Wine tasting is a guided experience,” he explains. “If you want a good glass of wine, there’s a wine bar or a wine shop for that. But people come to Napa for the experience.”

For the month of July, guest counts have only been down 30 percent, says Gearity. Staff presence, on the other hand, has been 100 percent so far.

“That’s the thing about hospitality workers,” Gearity says. “They feel successful when their guests are happy.” 

To help ensure workers take care of themselves, and each other, Frank Family hospitality staff work on the “buddy system,” with a partner.

“We stress to partners: you are each other’s eyes,” Gearity says. “We’re going to keep doing this style of service as long as our guests, and the weather, allow it. People need an outlet; they need a break. It’s still a weekend in Napa … . It’s different, but people still enjoy it.”


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