NOTE: This piece was last updated in March of 2022.
Whether you visit the grape-rich valleys of Napa and Sonoma, the golden vineyards of Temecula, or one of the state’s many other acclaimed wine regions, you'll find a warm reception and some new features to elevate your wine-tasting experience since California’s full economic reopening in June 2021.
"During the pandemic, wineries learned how to adapt, and they found new and better ways to cater to guests," says Joel Peterson, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, a consortium of 200-plus Central Coast vineyards.
Jenny Dudikoff, spokesperson for the Wine Institute, a California wine industry advocacy group, agrees. "Given the adaptive spirit of California’s wineries, many have adjusted to expand tastings to their outdoor spaces," she says. "We expect many California wineries to continue outdoor tastings."
Paso Robles tasting rooms have been showing off the outdoor improvements they constructed during the pandemic. Says Peterson: "Many of our member wineries got rid of their tasting bars and put in a lot more space for seated tastings. They built these really cool structures and spaces, whether they're under the oak trees, on the crush pad, or out in the vineyard. They added more tables, shade structures, and umbrellas. You're still going to see wineries using their outdoor spaces because visitors have really enjoyed being outside."
Outdoor tasting has also become the norm in the foothill vineyards of El Dorado County, according to Paul Bush, owner and winemaker of Madroña Vineyards in Camino and Rucksack Cellars in Placerville. "We learned some things from working through the pandemic,” Bush says. “Much of what we did during the restrictions we're going to continue doing, like outdoor tasting. We found that it was really successful. People really enjoy tasting wines in the vineyards where the grapes are grown."
Another lesson the pandemic taught the wine industry was that requiring tasting reservations created a better experience for everyone.
"For so long, the state's guidelines were that people had to have reservations. Instead of standing at the bar, guests would sit at a table, and servers would bring out the wines and talk about them," Peterson says. "Wineries learned that people really liked having a one-on-one experience with their server. They got more attention, they learned more about the wines, and they had a more memorable experience."
By requiring reservations, wineries are able to predict how many guests might walk through their doors each day, and they are able to create customized experiences, such as setting up seating arrangements according to guest requests. "You feel so much more catered to when you're sitting at a table with your friends or family and someone is pouring wines for you," he says.
The lasting effect, Peterson says, is that visitors will probably see more "reservations recommended" or "reservations only" signs at tasting rooms as the norm.
"Wineries don't want to turn anybody away, so the new terminology is 'walk-in-friendly.' Some wineries have created an overflow area for those who don't have reservations. If people just drop by, they can sit and buy a bottle of wine and enjoy the scenery. They won't get the catered experience, but they get to enjoy some wine in a beautiful outdoor space."
For information on specific California wine regions, please check out the Wine Institute's links for Regional Winery & Grower Associations.