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To stand out in the crowded, tradition-bound wine industry, independent wineries often invite visitors to their wineries to take a tour, get a taste, and take home a memorable experience – as well as a bottle or two (or 12).
Quirky back-stories, historical locations, and breathtaking scenery can all charm first-time buyers. And in some cases, it’s a virtual visit that hooks in a winery’s fans. Here’s a tour of 10 unique wineries and the eccentric wines they’ve created. We’ll leave the tasting part of the tour up to you.
By Joan Voight, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 5 Dec 2011
Notable wine: Plungerhead Zinfandel
Don Sebastiani & Sons Winery creates non-traditional wines in a tradition-bound industry. This branch of the 100-year-old Sebastiani family of winemakers offers a new take with Plungerhead, which showcases “the cutting-edge marketing and the innovative package design of the younger generation,” says president August Sebastiani, a fourth-generation member of the wine clan.
The name refers to the bottle’s odd, mushroom-shaped plastic stopper, or plunger. The closure, called a “zork” in Australia, doesn’t require a corkscrew and can be reused. Younger customers, unencumbered by the same hangups as tradition-bound wine snobs, epitomize the company’s slogan: “Made with character for characters.”
Notable wine: Sherman & Hooker Shebang! Red
This red wine blend is an offbeat tribute to Civil War generals Joseph Hooker and William T. Sherman, who founded Bedrock Vineyard in California’s Sonoma Valley in 1854. The wine is a project of Morgan Twain-Peterson, son of Joel Peterson, founder of award-winning Ravenswood Winery. He bottles Shebang! in one-liter glass jugs, which he says alert customers to the fact that the wine is affordable and unpretentious. Wine retailers K&L Wine Merchants praise Shebang! Red as “a throwback to simpler times when exceptional wine was available to just about anyone.”
Visitors to the winery learn about the jug’s label, which is a reproduction of an 1849 land grant illustration given to General Hooker, who had so many prostitutes following his troops during the Civil War that people began calling the women “hookers.”
Notable wine: Longboard Mavericks Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaking and surfing have a lot in common, says Oded Shakked, surfer and founder of Longboard Vineyards. “Both are part sport, part meditation and both require working with, rather than against, nature,” he says. And both create a community of passionate followers.
Anyone enamored with the sunny, carefree lifestyle of surfers in pursuit of the perfect wave will enjoy a visit to Longboard Vineyards. Even though its Healdsburg, Calif., location is 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the tasting room is decked out with surfboards and photos of big waves. Its Longboard Mavericks Cabernet is named for the famed surfing spot located just south of San Francisco.
Shakked, who built surfboards before becoming a wine maker, seeks to keep the vibe at his winery authentic, often extolling visitors to “relax, its only frickin’ wine.”
Notable wine: Mad Housewife Chardonnay
Irreverent, yes, but women — and the men who love them — are hooked by the name, retro imagery and slogan, “What’s domestic bliss without a little wine?” The label takes gentle aim at wine snobs and unruly husbands and children.
Started in 2005 by Rainier Wine Company in Seattle, the brand was specifically created for women, say co-founders Damian Davis and Mike Lynch, who wanted to take advantage of the fact that women purchase and consume more than half the wine in the U.S. Mad Housewife has a devoted fan base who go to the Web site to buy T-shirts, share recipes and share photos of themselves enjoying the wine.
Notable wine: It’s My Fault Red Table Wine
Back in 2006, Pacific Star Winery, located on California’s north coast, learned that part of the infamous San Andreas Fault runs directly under its wine cellar. Owner and winemaker Sally Ottoson had always promoted her winery’s breathtaking location on an oceanside cliff as an unexpected place to try new wines. The fault added another dimension to her marketing. Ottoson named her blend of Mendocino County Syrah, Charbono and Carignane grapes, “It’s My Fault,” with a map of the fault line on the label. She talks people into buying multiple bottles with the suggestion that “a bottle comes in handy when you are looking for a way to offer an apology.”
Notable wine: Goats do Roam White
Who let the goats out? The mischievous son of this South African winery’s owner did, inspiring a wine in the process. Or so the story goes. Any jab at French wines and the Cote du Rhone region is purely coincidental.
Goats do Roam was created in 1999 by Charles Back II, who took over the winery and expanded his late father Cyril’s dairy goat herd. Today, the goats at the winery not only draw curious visitors, but also produce milk for gourmet cheeses that pair well with Back’s wine. In addition to wine and cheese tastings and sales, his farm also includes The Goatshed, a Mediterranean-style indoor and al fresco eatery in a former wine cellar.
Notable wine: Fumé Bob
Bob isn’t the winemaker — he is very large steer who greets visitors to the Glen Ellen, Calif., winery. Winemaker Kevin Holt refers to Bob as “full-figured,” “fun,” and “playful with just a touch of sweetness,” which also, incidentally, is how Holt describes Fumé Bob, the steer’s namesake wine.
Bob has proven a potent marketing mascot. Visitors to the winery and the company website are charmed by the story of how the two-week-old steer was abandoned by his mother and had to be bottle-fed at the winery. Now tipping the scales at 2,300 pounds, Bob grew up unfazed by barbed wire and sometimes can be sighted in the vineyard devouring his favorite snack of ripe grapes.
Bob’s a popular attraction not only at the winery but also on Facebook, where he regularly posts about the sweet life of a wine-loving steer.
Notable wine: Inherit the Sheep Cabernet Sauvignon
This tiny Napa Valley, Calif., winery is named after the 4-H sheep living on the property when winery owners Clay and Tersilla Gregory bought it. As part of the purchase agreement, they committed to caring for the animals. The couple decided they may as well name their wines after their “inheritance,” and put them on the wine label, says Clay.
That was in 2000. Since then, in addition to producing wine, the couple has added goats, roosters and chickens to their menagerie. Urban visitors are invited to “sip wine and mingle with the goats and sheep,” says Clay, who considers his wines as down to earth as they are high-end.
Notable wine: Middle Sister Rebel Red
This blend of Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon is aimed straight at female wine lovers. Winery owner Terry Wheatley was a senior marketing exec at Sutter Home Winery for more than a decade before she launched Middle Sister wines in 2008. She named the winery after the young daughter of a friend, a middle child with a mind of her own.
That inspiration guides the mission of her Napa, Calif.-based wine company, which is to “bring the female point of view to the male-dominated world of wine,” she says.
Rebel Red has spawned other Middle Sister wines and personalities, such as Drama Queen Pinot Grigio and Smarty Pants Chardonnay. This winery doesn’t have a tasting room, but visitors, especially women, flock to the company’s website, where Rebel Red and her sister wines regularly post on the company blog, and vino-loving sisters submit group pictures for the customer photo gallery.
Notable Wine: Hop Kiln Big Red
Before there was wine, there was beer. Hops used in beer-making once ruled the roost in Sonoma County, Calif., and Hop Kiln winery makes hay with that heritage. About 50,000 visitors a year come to taste wine in a three-story hops dryer built in 1905 from local redwood. Hop Kiln Big Red is the most historic of the wines, named after a tall redheaded cowgirl who lived nearby back in the 1890s. Bernadette Randall, aka Big Red, “walked like a woman and rode like a man,” says winery lore. The blend of Grenache, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Malbec is a far cry from beer, but the queen of the ranchers probably wouldn’t quibble.