When In CA Wine Country: Buena Vista Winery Barrel Tour & Tasting

I don’t know a lot about wine, but I sure like to try it.

When I first began culinary school, I enrolled in the Wine Certification. I found our first textbook reading overwhelming. It delved deeply into clippings and grapes and soils and weather. I quickly decided that a career as sommelier was not for me, but loved becoming more literate about wine terminology and having a clearer idea about what wines I like. I also developed some mad wine-swirling skills which make me look like I know what I’m doing. It was also really fun to take home a couple bottles of chardonnay that we made in class, even if they needed time to mature.

“Can you recommend a Sonoma winery?” I asked our Airbnb hostess.

She replied “wineries are everywhere kind of like pizza places in Philly,” and encouraged us to just pick one. This stuck me as  an odd response until we arrived. I have never visited Philly, but imagine there’s a pizza place around every corner.

To be very frank, neither of us can taste the difference between a $7 and $25 glass of wine. There was just no point in splurging on a $100 per person + winery tour when we could have just as much fun on a more casual experience. Buena Vista fit our bill. This Sonoma winery was located in the general direction of Lake Tahoe and allowed us to sign-up for a tour without a prior RSVP.

Sonoma is basically heaven. The pastoral hills, rolling wineries, and cool breeze makes one slow down and breathe easier for a bit. Buena Vista is a microcosm of this. It’s the oldest commercial winery in California and the estate is palatial.

buena vista cardboard people

Our tour didn’t begin until 11 a.m. The man who signed us up for the barrel tour suggested we visit Sonoma Best Market for breakfast. This was sage advice. 

Most tasting rooms open around 10 a.m.


You don’t want to begin your day consuming a wine flight on an empty stomach. You just don’t. Samples at Buena Vista are’t sparse. Our guide poured us rose while he spoke about the founder of Buena Vista, Count Agoston Haraszthy.

wine tasting

To make a long story short, the count immigrated to the United States from Hungary to escape political exile in 1840. He started a vineyard with clippings from Europe and eventually became Sheriff of San Diego. His vineyards flourished until the disease phylloxera wiped them out. The disease ravaged vineyards across California and even spread to France.

Our guide explained the clippings he planted from Europe hadn’t developed a resistance to the disease. People didn’t understand what was happening and blamed Haraszthy, basically running him out of California. In Nicauragua, he continued his entrepreneurial ventures by starting a sugar plantation and rum distillery. He met his untimely death when he fell into a river where he was eaten by an alligator. This sounds like fiction, but it’s not.

Despite all of these setbacks, his winery lives on. 

Buena Vista is a winery, not a vineyard, meaning that it contracts grapes from other vineyards. However, our guide described making wine the old fashioned way. Our tour included about seven samples, two of which our guide poured directly from the barrel with a tool called a wine thief. We walked through the hand-dug caves learning about the wine and champagne making processes.

I was especially fascinated with the little candles on the tops of the wine barrels. Each spiral represents how many hours are left before there is no more oxygen!

wine barrel candle

The tour proceeded at a leisurely pace and we got to know our guide. A recent college graduate with a business degree, he now travels to different vineyards to learn the wine-making craft. Our visit day coincided with their last day of harvest. The next day he would begin assisting with the fermentation process. He described gearing up for long days of hard, physical work. “I love it,” he said.

Before we headed back to the tasting room for our final sample, we visit the champagne room. The decor theme seemed to be “mannequin heads.” They were kind of everywhere.


The room reminded me of a  recent visit to the Turf Club‘s Clown Lounge in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the bartender used the description “creepy classy.” This also applies here. Mostly, it was fun, though.

We felt spent after one tasting. I couldn’t imagine going on more than a couple in single day. One article I ran across discusses how to visit 10 Sonoma wineries in one day! After experiencing one, this sounds like a wild, hilarious dream. You would need to join one of those bus tours, utilize spit buckets, or eat a lot more giant breakfast sandwiches between tastings.

Our barrel tour tasting tickets cost $40 each. This was more than we initially planned to spend. Since it was the only tour/tasting we pursued that day and allowed us to join a tour without a prior RSVP, we rolled with it.

Is it one of the best or most elite wineries in Sonoma? Who knows! What matters most is that looking back on our trip, the winery tour stands out as being one of our favorite experiences of the trip, simply because we had so much fun.

Coming Up Next: Taking a break from the California series to share things we tasted at the Minnesota State Fair 2016. 


  1. Feisty Eats

    Great post. I too am clueless as to a cheap or expensive wine. I simply love to taste. The trip sounds fun & what a story about the count. $40 well spent!

  2. Katie

    Awesome! I haven’t been to sonoma, but would love to, good to remember that it doesn’t need to be the fanciest to have fun!

  3. Kelly

    A few years back, I did a bus tour by myself of Napa/Sonoma and it was one of my most favorite things I have ever done- I hope to revisit with my husband some day!!
    It’s funny you mention not being able to distinguish between cheap/expensive wine…Couldn’t agree more.
    In college, Dusty and I worked/lived at a B & B in our town and they hosted a community ed wine tasting class. This was attended by some wine snobs and the best part of the class is the blind taste testing- all bottles were poured from a bottle in a brown bag then revealed once we all rated the wines…The wine snobs, and the rest of the class, always preferred the cheaper wines the most!!

    Loving this series.

    • Jeni

      That sounds really amazing! Did you have a favorite winery? The blind taste testing sounds fascinating! I have always heard that most people can’t tell the difference either – or that expensive wines aren’t necessarily better.

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