A glass of Cabernet Franc—“liquid cashmere,” as it’s been called—at Viader, on the rocky slopes of Howell Mountain overlooking a great swath of Napa Valley. . . Another of Ditch Digger in Paso Robles, on the light-filled terrace at Denner Vineyards. . . Magical on-site sipping might seem like a distant memory to avid wine travelers curtailed by the pandemic. But as of Friday, June 12, it’s all possible again. California wineries have permission to open to visitors once again.
A few caveats. First, reopening is contingent on individual counties meeting certain metrics on containing the virus. But as of this writing, Napa and Sonoma counties are sweeping out their tasting rooms (or, more likely, sanitizing all surfaces) and getting ready to open their doors—many over the weekend (in some cases for members only at first), others in following days. On the Central Coast as well; in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara wine country, the lights are coming on. Winemaking, as an essential operation, has been in full swing all along, but now the hospitality vital to one of the state’s most vibrant businesses is going from lots of hand-wringing to lots of hand-washing.
Visits to almost all wineries are on an appointment-only basis. Many are expanding their service outside, to minimize tasting inside (go ahead, twist our arms to take the table under the spreading oak), and tables will be widely spaced or otherwise separated, to maintain safe distances (good riddance to crowded tasting bars). The staff will be wearing masks, and visitors will be asked to too, except when seated at their own tables. Wines might even be pre-poured, to limit close contact between guests and hosts. In short, the industry is taking very seriously the risks wine service poses, at a time when Covid-19 is far from neutralized.
In Oregon and Washington, tasting rooms are on a fast track to reopen too. As in California, those two states are opening according to a phased-in plan based on virus containment. In Oregon, only one county—Multnomah, anchored by Portland—lacks permission to open still. The wineries in the rest of the state, throughout the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, are in a position to welcome visitors according to the restrictions of the phase their county is in. The same is true in Washington, where the opening plan is so fine-tuned, they even have a Phase 1.5. A majority of counties across the state have moved to Phase 2, giving tasting rooms permission to operate at 50 percent capacity (including in Walla Walla and the Columbia Gorge).
All of this is to say, call ahead when making plans. Many favorite—and revered—producers are eager to welcome loyal and new clients. Count hotels and resorts (Meadowood, Auberge du Soleil) in that camp as well. Things will be different this year. Paso’s aforementioned Denner, for instance, is now open to everyone by appointment, not just members. But in some cases—because of the continuing need for distance, not in spite of it—the experience might be even more exclusive. Case in point: Trefethen Family Vineyard’s new Twilight at Trefethen program; reserve the one tour and table for a summer evening, and the entire estate is yours.