Kathy Marcks Hardesty: The new normal at tasting rooms
From the Vine

Kathy Marcks Hardesty: The new normal at tasting rooms

Ross Wine Cellars

Co-owner of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, Paula Dooley, serving tastings in the breezeway at the winery. 

I never, ever saw this day coming: You can no longer simply walk into a tasting room and expect to be served a tasting flight. By law, tasting rooms and wine bars can no longer offer complimentary tastings (except for wine club members as that’s part of the deal).

According to the news media, “It’s the new normal.” With the short lived Phase 2 in the pandemic, tasting rooms could only open if they could serve you a meal at the same time. This meant a lot of hassle for the tasting rooms that had to connect with a restaurant which delivered the food.

The good news now, that’s no longer necessary since we hit Phase 3 two weeks ago. That’s a good thing, because I don’t typically visit tasting rooms for lunch.

Fortunately, the tasting rooms now have a bit more leeway. They can serve you a wine tasting, a glass of wine, or a bottle of wine, as long as you make an appointment to visit. And you can drink it there but you must adhere to social distancing, like wearing your mask to enter and leave, or walk to the restroom. But you can count on the fact your entrance will be quite welcome when you do revisit them.

Even our best local vintners’ depend on having happy customers who come in to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle there. And if you’re like me, you’ll always happily buy wine to take home to revisit.

It was only the second day of Phase 3 when I was right back out on the wine country trails near my home in Pismo Beach. My husband Dan and I headed out for some tasting right after a fantastic lunch at the new Farmhouse Corner Market, across Hwy. 227. Imagine my content when I recently visited Claiborne & Churchill tasting room in Edna Valley, just a block south from the end of Price Canyon Road, where it meets Hwy. 227.

Not only was it easy to maintain social distancing with the check-in table outside in the parking lot, there was plenty of space between the tables on their lovely garden patio. It was only their second day of reopening, and though they apologized for any inconvenience, they seemed perfectly prepared for guests.

Some people chose to sit in the sunshine, but most tables were in full shade on that lovely summer-like day with a cool breeze wafting through. Most of the tables accommodate two or four people, probably even six guests, but the tasting rooms ask that you do not bring a party of six or more without making prior arrangements. I can’t blame them, it makes everything easier for the staff and consumers.

Claiborne & Churchill is open daily from noon until 5 p.m. for purchases and curbside pick-ups. You can also order wine by the glass or bottle to enjoy in their lovely garden. One of our early pioneers in Edna Valley, they’ve had a rich history since their opening in 1983. The tasting room hosts many very attractive events, even in the sketchy year of 2020. But there have been limitations for them with the rule of no more than 10 people in a group.

Still, tasting here is quite reasonably priced. Wines by the glass range from $10 to $22. Their bottle prices range from $24 for the gewürztraminer, up to $56 for the flagship pinot noir. With an advance reservation, you will be guaranteed a table on the patio.

But if you choose to take a chance by calling ahead the same day (as I did), you can bring along low-backed lawn chairs, while still maintaining social distancing of six feet apart from other guests. Notable, they often offer special sales that apply to by-the-glass purchases, too. You are encouraged to bring along a picnic basket of food (but not outside alcohol, as that’s rude). They also have cheese boards available to purchase to enjoy with your wine tasting. Be sure to visit their webpage at claiborneandchurchill .com to learn more about their other events that happen throughout the year.

Our next stop was just off Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo, was at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars. We love their pinot noirs, but we like every great wine variety they produce. Now here, you must make an appointment as space is very limited to follow social distancing. We got lucky, we called while on our way but we would not have been served if we had not called ahead to ensure they had an opening on their schedule.

It’s always better to make an appointment, visit stephenrosswine .com to get contact info. The tasting fee is $20 per person, which is waived with a $50 or more purchase. The patio tables are limited two to four people. If you have a party of six to ten, you must make an advance appointment. Or you could join the wine club and the tasting is included, plus you get 25 percent off your purchase price. With deals at wineries like these two, I never leave empty-handed!

Reach Kathy at kathymhardesty @ gmail .com

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